SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Road show offers more USC tests
COLUMBIA -- Welcome to Carolina Stadium, home of the SEC's best 1-5 baseball team.
The two-time defending College World Series champion South Carolina Gamecocks are 17-7 overall but fell four games out of first place in the SEC East on Saturday. A 5-4 loss to No. 1 Florida in the rubber match of a captivating three-game series at Carolina Stadium put the home team in a big hole and a bad mood.
South Carolina had nowhere to go but down after triumphing twice in Omaha.
Now the Gamecocks have nowhere to go but up in the standings.
The Gators are No. 1 for almost as many reasons as they have uniforms. But South Carolina plays its next five games on the road, with a three-game SEC series at Vanderbilt sandwiched between a Tuesday night game at The Citadel and an April 4 visit to the College of Charleston.
"I don't feel too good, to be honest with you," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "We've played hard. We've had some spurts that we've been a pretty good club, but we haven't been able to put it all together. Hopefully, we'll make some strides and get some games back that have been close and they got away from us.
"All you can do is keep grinding it out."
A win Saturday and it's a different spin.
But with two outs in the ninth inning and the game tied 3-3, Matt Price hit Florida's No. 9 hitter, Cody ("Son of Bucky") Dent, with a 3-2 pitch, right before Nolan Fontana came through with a two-run triple.
The inning before, pinch-hitter Michael Roth -- yes, the hero pitcher Michael Roth -- and freshman catcher Grayson Greiner struck out with two runners on base.
Florida is so good, the Gators can win with 2010 ninth overall draft pick Karsten Whitson still out of the rotation with an arm injury. A guy named Vickash Ramjit came off the bench to hit two home runs in Florida's 8-2 victory Friday. When Brian Johnson isn't an undefeated starting pitcher, he serves as a designated hitter.
"We're getting better," South Carolina junior first baseman Christian Walker said. "We're scoring more runs. But we're still not winning, which is the ultimate goal. So they could score 10 runs, and if we only score nine, we're still not satisfied. That's really about it."
South Carolina this season is 0-4 on the road against major conference teams (one loss at Clemson, three Kentucky).
Yeah, and The Citadel and College of Charleston have to feel relatively confident. Fellow Southern Conference member Wofford, as recently as Wednesday night, defeated the Gamecocks.
'A daily grind'
"It's going to be a challenge," Tanner said. "It's a daily grind, but I think it's one of those deals that if you enjoy putting on the uniform, it's a tremendous challenge. We've got some guys that are grinding it out and we've got some guys that back off a little bit at times.
"They're aggressive and then they're tentative. They're young, they're inexperienced, a lot of them. It's difficult for them."
This quest might take a while.
If USC takes two of three games over the next four SEC series -- Vandy, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn -- they will pull even in league play. By late April.
As demonstrated in a tossup Game 3 against the nation's top-ranked team, South Carolina easily is good enough to win any game or any series. But securing a national seed in the NCAA tournament -- the ticket to hosting a super regional -- is a long "grind" away.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter at @sapakoff.