COLUMBIA — Urgency is not an emotion usually associated with South Carolina’s third Southeastern Conference baseball series of a season. But the Gamecocks are experiencing an uncommonly slow start in SEC play this year, as they find themselves 1-5 in the league for the third time ever heading into this weekend’s series at Vanderbilt, which begins tonight.
Coach Ray Tanner still likes his team, which is trying to avoid its first ever 1-6 SEC start. There are still eight league series — 24 games — remaining in the season, which he believes is plenty of time for the Gamecocks to overcome the sluggish start and perhaps accomplish what they did in 2003, when they started 1-5 and made the College World Series.
Yet he also is fully aware that after getting swept at Kentucky, which is now 24-1 and ranked No. 10 nationally, and losing two of three to top-ranked Florida, winning this weekend at Vanderbilt “looms large for us,” Tanner said.
“Did I think we’d be 6-0?” he said. “No, I didn’t think that. I didn’t think we’d be 1-5 either. We’re not in a situation that you have to run the table, but we have to win some series. If you don’t win a bunch of these series down the stretch, then you’re going to be sitting at home at the end of the year.”
Tanner speaks with perspective gained from being a head coach since 1988, and USC’s since 1997. He knows what talented teams look like, having led the Gamecocks to five World Series and the past two national championships.
“We haven’t been a bad team,” he said this year’s group, which has new starters at catcher, second base, shortstop, third base and left field.
It could be worse for the Gamecocks, who started the season ranked No. 3 and are now No. 11 with an 18-7 record. Vanderbilt began the year No. 10 and is now unranked. The Commodores are 10-15 and 2-4 in the SEC, though they won their last two league games, over Georgia.
Because of preseason expectations, and the current reality, Tanner expects an intense vibe this weekend. He said he thinks it will be “a Super Regional atmosphere — let’s survive, let’s go. I’m sure they feel a little bit like we do, that we’ve got to get it done now.”
Pitching has been USC’s strength this season, though the Gamecocks’ .280 team batting average isn’t much lower than last season’s .294. USC enters this weekend facing questions about its pitchers and hitters — or one of its best hitters, at least.
Freshman shortstop Joey Pankake, who leads the team with a .354 average, injured his left biceps while check-swinging in Tuesday’s 7-3 win at The Citadel. He will travel to Nashville, but his status for tonight’s game is uncertain. Freshman Connor Bright, of Wando High, will , play if Pankake can’t. Bright is hitting .216 in 15 games, 10 of which he started.
USC’s second-best pitcher, Matt Price, will remain in the bullpen for now, which leaves a vacancy at the No. 2 spot in the starting rotation. Tanner went with Forrest Koumas — a starter last year and late-game reliever this year — in that spot last weekend against Florida, and Koumas lasted just one ?inning and allowed six runs.
Now, Tanner doesn’t know what he’ll do with the No. 2 spot. He is thinking about maybe going with freshman Evan Beal, an eighth-round Major League draft pick last year who has 23 strikeouts and five walks in 142/3 relief innings this season. Whatever Tanner does this weekend, he said he definitely won’t move Colby Holmes from the No. 3 starting position.
USC losing this season’s first two series wasn’t a surprise. The Gamecocks under Tanner have struggled at Kentucky, where they are now 11-13, and Florida is a supremely talented team. This weekend, though, brings a very winnable series that could prove pivotal.
“Our season is not lost,” ?Tanner said. “But there’s a priority on winning series now.”