Right-hander Colby Holmes, the SEC pitcher of the week, couldn’t quite make it to nine innings against Arkansas. He gave up a solo homer with two outs in the ninth that finished his day in a masterful 7-1 victory Sunday. But I’m going to make it to nine. Here are nine things I know about USC baseball.
1. I know Superman must have worn his Steven Neff pajamas the last two nights. South Carolina’s junior pitcher-turned-left fielder could not have been more impressive at the plate Saturday and Sunday. In eight at-bats, he launched three homers, two singles and a double and drove in five runs in back-to-back USC wins over Arkansas. He began the series batting .179 and ended it hitting .306. As he gradually has begun to get more comfortable at the plate after a two-year layoff, he has started to display the impressive batting skills that he brought to USC with him from Lancaster High. Although he wants to continue to contribute on the mound as well – he’s 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA over 33 innings – he is going to keep getting at-bats, especially with outfielders Jackie Bradley and Adam Matthews still out of the lineup with injuries.
2. I know Saturday’s walk-off win rejuvenated a scuffling USC team. After Friday’s lackluster performance in a 6-2 loss to the Razorbacks, the players were unhappy with themselves and the possibility of a great season possibly slipping away with three straight SEC losses. It appeared as if the Gamecocks were going to let Saturday’s game get away from them as well when Arkansas rallied from a four-run deficit to tie the game at 5-5. But Scott Wingo’s solo homer in the ninth pumped life into the team and infused it with the energy needed to come out and capture the series Sunday.
3. I know the SEC East is truly a beast. With one weekend left in conference play, No. 3 USC, No. 6 Florida and No. 7 Vanderbilt are all tied atop the SEC with 20-7 records. Rarely do you see more than one of two teams reach 20 wins in this league. It’s too tough and too balanced. So it’s even more amazing that three teams have done it and they’re all in the same division. Depending on how the final weekend plays out, they could all end up with the same record or finish with three different records. If two or more of them tie, they’ll be co-champions. USC owns the tiebreaker over Florida and Vanderbilt, while Florida just holds it over Vanderbilt. The tiebreaker is only used to determine seeding in the SEC tournament, which begins in Hoover, Ala., next week. As for the SEC West, there’s a four-way tie for first on that side, but the teams are only 13-14.
4. I know Michael Roth, Forrest Koumas and Colby Holmes should remain the weekend rotation for one more week. Ray Tanner thought about moving Holmes out of the rotation after a bad outing against Ole Miss, pushing Koumas from Sunday to Saturday while he contemplated making a switch. In the end, the coaches stuck with Holmes over Neff and it paid off in a big way with his impressive outing. Look for Alabama to face the same three the last seven SEC opponents have faced.
5. I know this year’s record is looking eerily similar to last year’s mark. Heading into the final week of the regular season in 2010, the Gamecocks were 41-11, the same record this team has. Last season they beat Furman before losing two-of-three to Florida on the way to a 43-13 record heading into the SEC tournament. With a midweek game against UNC Asheville and a weekend series at Alabama, these Gamecocks have a shot to better that mark if they can win more than two of the games. If they end up with the same record, perhaps they’ll follow the same path in the postseason, too.
6. I know the Gamecocks are finding Carolina Stadium a friendlier place to play every season. In the Vista ballpark’s third season, they’ve posted their best record yet at 30-4 with one more regular-season home game to play as well as a potential NCAA regional and Super Regional on tap. In 2009, the season the new stadium opened, USC went 26-9. In the national championship season, the Gamecocks went 30-6. But even by winning out this season, USC still wouldn’t match the 37-4 mark set by the 2000 team under Tanner at Sarge Frye Field. Bobby Richardson’s best teams went 30-2 in 1974 and 30-1 in 1975 at home. June Raines’ 1982 team went 33-4 at Sarge Frye Field.
7. I know John Taylor is getting ready to break a record. With 35 appearances, including all three games against Arkansas, the senior right-handed reliever now trails the single-season record of 37 by just two. Look for it to fall before the Alabama series concludes. The current record is shared by Michael Roth, who did it last season as a situational lefty, Chad Blackwell (2004), and Blake Taylor (2002). Those three pitchers all made it to the College World Series in their record seasons. It’ll be interesting to see if John Taylor gets there this season, and how many appearances he’ll finish with if the Gamecocks make it to Omaha.
8. I know the new bat standards have made a difference. The lazy fly balls no longer leave the ballpark, and that’s OK. Certainly, the Gamecocks have made their adjustments to life without the long ball. They currently have 40 home runs, and they’re headed toward their lowest total since the 1995 season, when they hit 42 home runs. In Tanner’s 14 previous seasons at USC, his teams averaged 98.5 home runs. But the lack of homers hasn’t translated into more of a small-ball game, however. The Gamecocks still don’t run much, stealing only 32 bases so far. Tanner’s 14 other USC teams averaged 70 stolen bases. But as long as the Gamecocks keep winning, it’s not likely anybody will notice or care about either number.
9. I know this season has flown by. Is the end of the regular season really here? It seems like last week that Santa Clara was pulling into town for the opener. Of course, a season tends to fly by when things are going well, and this team has done virtually everything right despite the various issues it has faced along the way. With the postseason looming, the Gamecocks will now get the chance to determine just how long the rest of their season will last.