COLUMBIA — A steady breeze blew through Carolina Stadium most of Sunday afternoon, flapping the three flags in right center field in toward home plate, and then out toward left field. This was, by and large, not a power hitter’s day.
Then Joey Pankake led off the fourth inning with a single, and South Carolina’s best slugger, LB Dantzler, approached the plate — a prime chance for South Carolina to score its first run as it aimed to finish a sweep of Kentucky. USC coach Chad Holbrook stood in the dugout, pondering the situation. He looked at the flags. They were limp.
“Boy, it would be good for him to get one in the air right now,” Holbrook thought.
Dantzler faced an 0-1 count against starter Corey Littrell, and Dantzler anticipated a fastball for the second pitch. Littrell threw a cut fastball or slider, and left it up in the strike zone. But even as Dantzler crushed the pitch to center field and ran down the first base line, he thought, “Dang it. Just a long flyout.” He had already seen how Kentucky’s best hitter, A.J. Reed, smacked balls to the outfield, only for the wind to deny them.
“I didn’t think it had a chance of going out,” Dantzler said later.
Yet for this moment, on a weekend of good fortune for USC, the wind relented and the ball kept carrying until it cleared the wall in dead center and landed an estimated 410 feet from home plate. Max Schrock stood in the on-deck circle, watched it disappear and said aloud, “Wow.”
The two-run homer was all the pop USC needed to beat Kentucky, 3-1, on a day when USC’s freshman starter, Jack Wynkoop, announced himself as a fixture in the rotation henceforth. Dantzler’s swing put the Gamecocks up 2-1, and Holbrook couldn’t help but consider it symbolic of the weekend. He couldn’t help but notice something else, too.
“As soon as he touched home plate, the wind started blowing again,” Holbrook said.
Just as the 18th-ranked Gamecocks (31-10, 11-7 Southeastern Conference) responded to getting swept by Arkansas with sweeps the next two weekends, they answered last weekend’s sweep of losses at Florida with three straight wins over No. 17 Kentucky.
Five straight weekends, five sweeps, three in their favor, and with four of their 10 SEC series remaining, the Gamecocks have refused to wilt because of early hitting struggles and important injuries. They will learn much more about themselves next weekend when they travel to No. 3 LSU, and the following weekend when they host No. 2 Vanderbilt. Those teams’ SEC records: 15-3 and 16-2.
This much the Gamecocks already know: They can hit as well as they expected to. They hit .172 in their first two SEC series. In their next four, they have batted .309. Dantzler, who hit .262 last season, is having a remarkable senior year: a .331 batting average, 1.113 on-base plus slugging percentage, 12 homers and 42 RBIs. Since 2009, no Gamecock has hit more than 13 homers in a season. Last year, Christian Walker led USC with 11 homers and 55 RBIs.
Though USC has seen left fielder Graham Saiko, center fielder Tanner English, ace pitcher Jordan Montgomery and closer Tyler Webb all miss time with injuries, the Gamecocks’ best hitters — Dantzler, Pankake and Grayson Greiner — have remained healthy, and all emerged from the early sputtering with plus-.300 batting averages.
“There was never a point in time where we really doubted ourselves,” said Schrock, whose 30 RBIs are tied with Pankake for second on the team. “When a lot of guys were ‘struggling,’ they were still hitting balls hard. They were just hitting them right at people. Maybe the numbers weren’t there, but I think we were all still squaring balls up.”
Things are also beginning to brighten for USC’s starting pitching, which floundered at times during Montgomery’s month-long absence with an elbow bone stress reaction. If the rotation of Nolan Belcher, Montgomery and Wynkoop mimics its performance against Kentucky, the Gamecocks will challenge for series wins against LSU and Vanderbilt.
In eight innings Sunday, Wynkoop allowed nine hits (eight singles) and one unearned run, while starting for the first time since March 30. He walked nobody, struck out three, and 75 of his 100 pitches were strikes. Webb on Sunday threw a scoreless ninth with two strikeouts after returning Saturday from a two-week absence due to an elbow muscle strain. For the weekend, USC’s starters totaled 211/3 innings, 16 strikeouts and two walks, and had a 1.69 ERA.
There were no grand milestones for USC this weekend, though Montgomery did start at home for the first time since Feb. 23 and Wynkoop got his first SEC win in his third league start. He did not keep a game ball, and didn’t need to. The weekend’s progress is valuable enough.
“It’s going to give me some confidence coming into the rest of the year,” Wynkoop said. “And I’ll definitely remember this day.”