Don’t look now, but South Carolina has a pair of six-packs.
The Gamecocks won the last six games of the 2010 season in Omaha to claim the national championship, and now they’ve won the first six games this season as they head into one of the biggest weeks of the regular season.
With back-to-back sweeps of Santa Clara and Southern Illinois, USC is playing like the veteran team it is by winning with a nice combination of pitching, hitting and defense. One day Tyler Webb is giving the Gamecocks a great start on the way to a shutout, and the next day the regulars are banging out 14 hits, eight of them for extra bases. And the defense, led by center fielder Jackie Bradley and the up-the-middle combo of Peter Mooney and Scott Wingo, can be spectacular at times.
The team hopes to continue to gather momentum in a Tuesday game against Furman before its annual three-game series against Clemson (5-1). The teams play in Columbia Friday, Greenville Saturday and Clemson Sunday. Last season the Tigers won two-of-three in the regular season before the Gamecocks bounced back when it counted the most to win consecutive games in Omaha to eliminate their archrivals from the College World Series.
Expect more high drama and a lot of passion from the two fan bases this weekend.
Moving on up
The Gamecocks moved up three spots in the Baseball America poll to No. 4, behind only Florida, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma. Clemson is No. 12. USC passed UCLA, Texas and TCU in the rankings after all of those teams lost twice last week.
It’s pretty amazing that three of the top four teams in the nation at this point are all in the same division -- the SEC East. The conference race this season is going to be something.
Neff on the mound
Junior left-hander Steven Neff is getting an opportunity to start Tuesday’s game against Furman. He has struggled in two relief appearances so far, but the coaches still believe he can be an important contributor.
They’re hoping that he can find his rhythm by starting a game. Neff has great physical ability -- he has been drafted twice -- and a fastball that hits the low 90s, but he has only thrown 20 innings total over the past two seasons.
In his first outing this season against Santa Clara, he lasted only 1 2/3 innings after giving up six straight hits in his second inning of work. Sunday against Southern Illinois, he walked one batter and hit another, throwing just one strike in nine pitches. Having time to prepare for a start may help him with his command.
The middle of South Carolina’s batting order continues to get the job done. But that should not come as a surprise. Bradley, first baseman Christian Walker, and third baseman Adrian Morales all showed what they could do a year ago, especially down the stretch, and they’ve picked up right where they left off.
Walker is hitting .522 (12-for-23) with four doubles, a homer and eight RBIs, Morales is hitting .412 (7-for-17) with three doubles, a homer and eight RBIs, and Bradley is batting .409 (9-for-22) with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs.
And it should be noted that they’ve adjusted to the new bats just fine.
Senior right-hander John Taylor had a perfect weekend. He appeared in all three games and gave up just one hit in a total of four innings. He struck out eight batters and walked none and picked up the win in Sunday’s game. He simply drops down with his motion and comes right at the hitters, which is especially important when entering a game with runners on base.
Look for him to play an integral role all season long.
Fast times at Carolina Stadium
The game time for Saturday’s game was a mere one hour and 49 minutes. Credit great pitching on both sides -- there were only two walks the entire day -- as well as the new pitch and between-innings clocks.
There’s nothing quite like a crisp, efficiently-played game in my view. Baseball is a much better game when the pitchers are throwing strikes and the defenses are making plays. I also like that the new bats seem to have taken the lazy flyball that drifts out for a home run out of the game. You’ve got to square the ball up to get it out, and the best hitters are showing that it still can be done.