There are no sure things in baseball, and USC discovered that this past weekend at Kentucky. After winning the series opener, the Gamecocks dropped the next two in Lexington to lose their first SEC series of the season.
Parity in college baseball, especially in the powerful SEC, means no team can take anything for granted. The Wildcats do not have one of the league's best records, but they were playing for their postseason lives. They couldn't afford to lose the series if they wanted to maintain hope of making the eight-team conference tournament and, by extension, the NCAA tournament.
USC coach Ray Tanner understands the arduous nature of trying to win every SEC series. The Gamecocks had won all seven of their conference series, including impressive victories against Auburn, Mississippi and Vanderbilt, before faltering.
"It's really difficult to go through this league, because there are no should-have-won weekends. There just aren't. The teams are too good. The records sometimes aren't as good because we beat up on each other," Tanner said "Was I disappointed in the weekend? Absolutely. I was hoping that we could win the series after winning on Friday."
But he tipped his cap to Kentucky's Saturday and Sunday pitchers for getting the job done. One week after banging out 25 hits in a series-clinching 20-15 victory against Alabama, the Gamecocks mustered four hits in Sunday's 9-3 loss to Kentucky. But the tougher loss came Saturday, when USC wasted an excellent performance by pitcher Sam Dyson in a 2-1 defeat.
Find a way to scratch out a couple of more runs, and there is another series victory, but USC failed to capitalize on several late scoring chances.
Not long after the series ended, Tanner already was looking ahead.
"I told our guys, 'OK, we're not happy with the weekend, but we've got to look at the overall picture. This is where we are with two weeks to play, and let's do our best to get back on the horse and do as good as we can,'" he said.
The No. 8 Gamecocks (36-11, 17-7 SEC) finish the conference schedule with a tough stretch of games. First they travel to No. 12 Arkansas (37-11, 16-8), which leads the SEC West, before closing with a visit from No. 4 Florida (33-12, 17-7), the co-leader along with USC in the SEC East.
Those six games will determine the SEC regular-season champion and conference tournament seeding, as well as factor into which teams earn host sites for the NCAA tournament. The Gamecocks haven't hosted a regional since 2007 and haven't hosted a Super Regional since 2004.
Despite hitting the bump in Kentucky, Tanner likes where his team stands.
"There isn't a coach in our league who wouldn't have signed up for our position going into the last two weeks of the league," he said. "There's four or five of us right there battling for all the marbles, and it's a great position to be in."
The team that wins the SEC regular-season title likely will need to reach a minimum of 20 wins. That would require nothing less than a split of the six games for USC, but it probably will need at least four wins because Florida faces cellar-dweller Georgia (13-33, 3-19) this weekend.
There's no complicated formula for figuring out what the Gamecocks have to do to win games. Outfielders Whit Merrifield and Jackie Bradley must galvanize the top of the lineup. Starters Blake Cooper and Dyson must pitch well enough to win the first two games. The defense must not give away runs, and the bullpen must hold late leads.
For the most part, that has worked well for 47 games, and Tanner knows what to expect of his team.
"I don't think it's as difficult now as it was weeks ago," he said. "We know what we're going to do in certain situations, which guys we're going to pitch, which guys we're going to play. It comes down to if our guys can outperform the other teams at this juncture."