COLUMBIA — Ray Tanner sprinted out of the South Carolina dugout in a bee line to home plate umpire Mark Chapman during the Gamecocks’ 6-4 victory Sunday.
For the next minute or so, Tanner jawed at Chapman, voicing his displeasure about Chapman calling a Mississippi State runner safe at home in the fifth inning.
Tanner, who rarely argues with umps, felt so confident in his once-floundering team that he actually considered arguing long and loud enough to force Chapman to eject him.
“Maybe this might be a good chance for me to leave today and see how my team responds,” he recalled thinking. “Maybe it fires them up a little bit or maybe they just enjoy my absence.”
Alas, Tanner offered no hat-tossing or plate-dusting theatrics. But after Tanner returned to the dugout, his team indeed responded and pulled away to beat the Bulldogs, thanks to a three-run fifth after MSU led 2-1 going to the bottom of the inning.
The victory completed the Gamecocks’ first Southeastern Conference series sweep of the season and put them over .500 in league play (8-7) for the first time this year. After starting 1-5, the two-time defending national champions are rolling now, five series into their 10-series SEC schedule, with three straight series wins.
“Going into today’s game, there seemed to be guys that can breathe a little bit easier,” Tanner said. “I think it does help a little bit where you can relax a little bit and not feel so much pressure all the time. For a while, we were looking up (in the SEC standings). Now we’re sort of in the mix with a bunch of teams.”
The Mississippi State series included several encouraging developments for USC (27-10).
Friday night, their hitters showed resiliency by scoring four runs with two outs in the eighth to win 7-6. Saturday afternoon, new No. 2 starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery showed consistency by following up his gem of a first SEC start by allowing just a run in 61/3 innings of a 5-3 victory. And Sunday, starter Colby Holmes showed plenty of guts by going 81/3 innings and allowing four runs when USC needed a lengthy outing from him because its bullpen was taxed.
Holmes (5-0) surrendered a run in seven innings last weekend against Tennessee, and in his past two starts he has now struck out nine batters and walked none. He credited his recent success to establishing his change-up early in games. He couldn’t throw the pitch two years ago, as a freshman, but when pitching coach Jerry Meyers arrived last year, he told Holmes, “If you want to be an effective pitcher in the SEC, you need a changeup.”
Holmes wrestled with the pitch last year, but now, he said, “I think it’s starting to be one of my better pitches.”
USC’s pitchers have thrown well all season, but Tanner knew his team needed to start scoring more runs. USC entered the weekend 5-7 in SEC play, including 1-7 when scoring four runs or fewer. Centerfielder Evan Marzilli, who was 3 for 4 with two runs scored Sunday, knows exactly why USC cracked the four-run mark in every game of the series.
“I just didn’t think we were taking as many pitches,” he said. “Just trying to go up there and be more aggressive. I thought that was the biggest change this weekend.”
Three weeks ago, Tanner woke up on the Monday after the Florida series trying to determine how to dig USC out of its 1-5 start. The Gamecocks’ response in their next three series has left them “ecstatic,” Holmes said, and ready to attack the second half of their league schedule.