COLUMBIA — There are plenty of tangible ways to measure the recent and remarkable progress of South Carolina’s baseball team, which was so inexperienced coming into this season, with newcomers at five positions.
Saturday’s 9-1 victory over Alabama gave the seventh-ranked Gamecocks their third consecutive series sweep and 11th straight Southeastern Conference win — the second-longest conference winning streak in school history, behind only 17 games in 2000.
They have now won five straight series since starting the season 1-5, with frustrating performances against Kentucky, which swept them, and Florida. The Gamecocks (33-11, 14-7 SEC) are nipping at the heels of Kentucky (14-6 SEC) in the East division.
USC won the first two games of the Alabama series 1-0 and 12-11, the latter by scoring three runs in the ninth inning, erasing concerns about struggles in close games. The Gamecocks started 6-1 in one-run games, lost six of their next seven one-run contests, but have now won three of their past four.
They are finding ways to win, just as they did last year, when they rode a 13-3 record in one-run games to their second straight national championship. And they are doing it at just the right time, as they finished the month of April on Saturday with a 14-3 record.
Two of their newcomers drove in two runs each Saturday — junior college third baseman LB Dantzler and freshman shortstop Joey Pankake.
But USC coach Ray Tanner has his own way of measuring the growth of his new players.
“It’s obvious when they come back to the dugout,” he said. “Our conversations are much different now than they were back in mid-February and early March. When we talk about what happened in that at-bat or that particular play, now it’s more of a discussion and sharing versus the anxiety of trying to get through the conversation. That’s a good sign.”
The Gamecocks certainly look more relaxed at the plate. Offense was a major concern earlier this season, but in four of their past six games, they have scored nine, 11, 12 and 12 runs.
“They always say hitting is contagious, so I feel like when one or two people start hitting good, everybody in the lineup starts feeling a little better,” Dantzler said.
It’s obvious to USC’s older players that the new guys are more comfortable.
“Another thing the coaches have been stressing is just: Have a good time,” said junior first baseman Christian Walker. “There’s no point in being stressed out and playing uptight. That was a big part of the last two years, just having fun. “At the beginning of the year, yeah, we were playing a little tight. I think we were worrying about some things too much, trying to think about what we’ve got to do to generate a run in this inning. But we’re not really worried about it right now. We’re just playing and having fun.”
The Gamecocks didn’t, and shouldn’t, get too excited about sweeping Alabama, the SEC’s worst team (17-28, 6-15). And the extension of their winning streak was tempered by two injuries.
Walker strained his left hamstring Saturday while reaching for a throw, but said after the game that it already felt better. Pitcher Colby Holmes missed his scheduled start because he strained his right (throwing) shoulder while stretching at Wednesday’s practice. It’s too early for Tanner to ascertain the injury’s severity, but he hopes rest will heal it quickly.
Still, with three SEC series left, the next two on the road, Tanner is pleased to be in this position.
“If you had told me, ‘Well, you’ll be 14-7 in league play after this series,’ where do you sign?” he said. “These guys have been fighting back, playing hard. Does it mean anything going forward? Well, I hope it means a little bit with our success and our confidence.”