South Carolina’s baseball team stands on the outside looking in when it comes to the likelihood of earning a 16th consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament. Defeating LSU at Carolina Stadium in the final regular-season series, however, could change that standing.
Yes, that would be national No. 1 LSU, winners of 44 of 52 games, including 19 of 26 in the SEC – a record that amazes USC coach Chad Holbrook.
“In this day and age when there’s a lot of parity in college baseball and a lot of balance in the SEC, they’ve separated themselves this year from a lot of the other teams. They have a great team, they have a special team. They’re old, they have experience, and they have a terrific shortstop (Alex Bregman), maybe one of my favorite players to watch in college baseball,” Holbrook said. “As good as Bregman is, they’ve got other players who are elite when it comes to ranking players in college baseball. What they’ve been able to do this year through 52 games is incredible.”
The Tigers, who have won seven of their past eight games, represent the highest of hurdles for the unranked Gamecocks (31-22, 12-15 SEC). But USC has won four of its past five, including a road series win against then-No. 3 Texas A&M with 31 runs in the three-game set.
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“We’re going to have to bring that same intensity, same focus and attention to detail all nine innings (in each game) this weekend if we want to put ourselves in a position to win,” USC third baseman DC Arendas said. “Both teams are coming into the weekend confident, and both teams are going to have to produce and do the little things well to win the series.”
Holbrook notes the Tigers do everything well, favorably comparing them with the 2009 LSU team that won the national championship. They have seven players hitting .325 or above, four players with 38 or more RBIs and three players with 20 or more stolen bases. Their pitching staff has eight arms with an ERA under 3.00. They have won eight out of nine conference series.
But the Gamecocks refused to flinch in College Station, and that response last week has Holbrook optimistic that his team can rise to the challenge again, this time in front of friendlier fans.
“Once that first pitch is thrown, it’s going to be who plays the best, who executes the best, who gets a few lucky breaks,” Holbrook said. “We may be in a little bit more of a situation in which we need them to not play their best. We’re certainly going to have to play our best to have a chance to win.”
The USC players are convinced they can do that again. They have scored 48 runs in the past four games and haven’t made an error over the same period. It’s the most momentum they’ve managed to put together since the 17-3 start to open the season.
“It’s finally all starting to come together,” USC shortstop Marcus Mooney said. “We were frustrated with ourselves and knew we needed to do something to get into the postseason. Sure enough, we’re doing that.”
This late run has the team pointing toward an extension of the NCAA postseason streak. USC left-hander Jack Wynkoop, who has won four consecutive games to help keep the Gamecocks’ hopes afloat, embraces the challenge.
“You’ve got to have a lot of respect for the lineup we’re about to face and the team we’re about to play,” Wynkoop said. “That’s what playing in this league is all about. It’s facing the best competition in the country.”
Holbrook understands his team can make an important statement to the NCAA selection committee if it knocks off the Tigers. Arendas wouldn’t have it any other way at this stage of the season.
“They’ve got a great team, and it’s a huge series for us to get to where we want to be. We expect it to be a high-intensity and emotional weekend,” Arendas said.
Holbrook will place his faith in Wynkoop once again to start the series Thursday night.
“We’ll give the ball to our best pitcher and see where we stand against the best in college baseball,” he said.
WHERE THEY RANK
RPI rankings for SEC baseball teams:
5. LSU (44-8)
6. Florida (38-14)
8. Texas A&M (42-9)
10. Vanderbilt (37-16)
24. Auburn (33-20)
28. Ole Miss (29-24)
43. Arkansas (31-19)
47. Alabama (29-24)
52. Missouri (28-24)
56. South Carolina (31-22)
57. Kentucky (28-23)
71. Tennessee (21-25)
84. Georgia (25-26)
103. Miss. State (24-27)
USC VS. LSU
WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Carolina Stadium
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
TELEVISION: SEC Network, Thursday and Saturday; ESPNU, Friday
SERIES: LSU leads 32-24-1
LAST MEETING: The Gamecocks won two-of-three in the 2013 series
RECORDS: USC 31-22, 12-15 SEC; LSU 44-8, 19-7 SEC
RANKINGS: LSU is No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Thursday, USC LHP Jack Wynkoop, Jr., 8-4, 2.83 vs. LSU LHP Jared Poche, So., 7-1, 2.87;Friday, USC TBA vs. LSU RHP Austin Bain, Fr., 1-2, 2.98; Saturday, USC TBA vs. LSU RHP Alex Lange, Fr., 9-0, 2.13
NOTES: USC is 24-9 at home, while LSU is 12-2 on the road. ... The Tigers have won six of the last 10 meetings dating back to the start of the 2009 season. LSU won the 2009 national championship, and USC won the next two in 2010-11. ... USC is hitting .262 with 301 runs scored, 60 doubles, 40 homers and 63 stolen bases, while LSU is hitting .319 with 371 runs scored, 116 doubles, 43 homers and 101 stolen bases. ... The Gamecocks have an ERA of 4.00, while the Tigers have a 2.84 ERA.