Gamecocks pass - not ace - test
CLEMSON -- Drama bookended South Carolina's traveling series this weekend with Clemson -- the Gamecocks' first true test of the season.
Friday night in Charleston, the Gamecocks rejoiced after centerfielder Evan Marzilli's diving catch ended a 3-2 victory. Sunday afternoon at Clemson, they could only watch helplessly as Clemson's Jon McGibbon rounded third base and scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning, on Steve Wilkerson's single.
Clemson's 6-5 victory disappointed USC, which won the series 2-1. But USC coach Ray Tanner understands it is still early March, far too soon for anything to define a season one way or the other. Consider that Sunday's rivalry series finale fell exactly three months before the last possible date on which an NCAA tournament regional could end.
Of course, Florida does come to Columbia on March 22 for an important three-game series; the Gators are currently ranked No. 1 in the country, the Gamecocks No. 3. And USC opens Southeastern Conference play March 16 at Kentucky.
So while Tanner isn't worried about his 9-1 team, despite Sunday's result, his optimism about some developments he saw this weekend -- including freshman catcher Grayson Greiner's two home runs Sunday -- remain tempered by youthful flaws.
"We didn't think we were going to run the table," Tanner said. "We were in position to win today and maybe we didn't deserve to be. They out-pitched us. They out-hit us."
Sophomore Forrest Koumas, the early leader to be USC's new closer, started the ninth by giving up a single to McGibbon, on a 2-2 count. Wilkerson's single, after Thomas Brittle's successful sacrifice bunt, came on a 3-1 count.
"I felt like (the umpire) started squeezing me right there in the last inning," Koumas said. "Those sliders were right there, on the money, didn't move the glove. I thought he had a totally different zone, so I had to throw it right down the middle and that's what happens whenever you do that."
He was referring to Wilkerson's hit. But Brittle's bunt execution was just as important. It stood in contrast to the top of the ninth, when USC freshman Tanner English, a good bunter, popped a sacrifice bunt attempt to the pitcher with a runner on first, no out and the score tied at five.
"He was a little bit too aggressive out of the box and maybe was trying to get on base as well," Tanner said of English's bunt. "He's a young player. He'll learn from that."
Another USC freshman, shortstop Joey Pankake, had a fielding error Sunday, giving him four for the series and six for the year.
Defense is more important than ever in college baseball, so Pankake's fielding is a concern for Tanner, though he isn't panicking.
"A lot of young players go through that," Tanner said. "He'll play through it."
USC has 11 games before the Florida series, and three against an SEC opponent. The Gamecocks can take satisfaction from passing their first test this weekend -- and motivation from knowing they didn't ace it.
"When we look back on it, it's going to be a good weekend," Greiner said. "But right now, it's tough."