USC hopes to improve hitting, starting tonight against Citadel
COLUMBIA — The midpoint of the 56-game regular season is already behind South Carolina’s baseball team, and tonight at home the Gamecocks will play their fifth game of the season’s second half, against The Citadel.
The Citadel (13-19) at South Carolina (23-9)
Carolina Stadium, Columbia, 7 p.m.
Starting pitchers: The Citadel, Fr. LHP Kevin Connell (1-2, 3.29 ERA); USC, Jr. LHP Nolan Belcher (1-1, 2.25 ERA)
But really, the next month and nine days — between tonight and the regular season finale against LSU — is the time when college baseball heats up in earnest. With the college basketball season over, most people who follow the Southeastern Conference now turn their focus toward the race to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series, which USC has won the past two years.
This weekend’s home series against Mississippi State will be USC’s fifth of 10 conference series, and at this point, it remains unclear if these Gamecocks have what it takes to get to Omaha, let alone win their third consecutive national championship. Of course, there are questions throughout the SEC’s East division, as Florida is now looking somewhat mortal, with a 7-5 league record, while 6-6 Tennessee, 5-7 USC and 5-7 Georgia all chase 9-3 Kentucky. The East standings don’t figure to wind up like they did last year, when Florida, USC and Vanderbilt all finished 22-8 in league play — six games ahead of the pack.
Before USC’s win Sunday over Tennessee, Volunteers coach Dave Serrano chatted with USC coach Ray Tanner and said he thought a 15-15 or 16-14 record could win the East.
“It’s happened before,” Tanner replied.
Most recently, it happened last year in the SEC West, as Arkansas’ 15-15 record bested three teams at 14-16.
Unless the Gamecocks’ hitting improves — and it very well could — they figure to find themselves in a lot of close games in this tight SEC East race. Last season, USC was 13-3 in one-run games. This season, 13 of USC’s 32 games have been decided by one run, and the Gamecocks are 7-6 in those contests. They started the year 6-1 in one-run games.
After Friday’s 5-4 loss to Tennessee, they found themselves at 3-7 in the SEC, with four of their losses coming by one run. It had a chance to be a demoralizing defeat, as it was just their second this season in a game that ace pitcher Michael Roth started. Moreover, the Gamecocks had, at that point, lost five straight one-run games, dating to their SEC opener at Kentucky.
Not only did they respond by winning on Saturday and Sunday against Tennessee, they pulled out a 2-1 victory on Saturday, showing signs of the dramatic success that highlighted last year.
“It’s been a battle for us,” Tanner said. “I’m really proud of our guys. After losing a tough Friday night game, it’s very, very difficult to win back the Saturday and the Sunday games.”
The statistical gap between USC’s pitching success and lack of hitting success so far this season is jarring. The Gamecocks rank second in the league with a 2.87 earned-run average and first with an opposing batting average of .195. But they are ninth in the 12-team league with a .274 batting average and 11th with a .362 on-base percentage.
While the batting average is 20 points lower than last season, and the on-base percentage 23 lower, USC’s team ERA is fairly close to last year’s 2.45 and its opposing batting average is well below last season’s .227. USC has a chance to pad its hitting numbers tonight. The Gamecocks won their first meeting with The Citadel, 7-3 last month in Charleston.
“Sometimes, you get upset with your hitters, and then you realize you’re facing pitchers in the SEC that are pretty good pitchers,” Tanner said. “It’s a tough scenario. If a guy’s really, really good, it’s not easy to ask your guys, ‘Hey, go up there and hit this guy.’ I think we have some guys that have the ability to hit.”