COLUMBIA — His players gathered around him Sunday afternoon after their fifth consecutive Southeastern Conference victory, and while South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner wasn’t trying to be a killjoy in this moment, he used it as an opportunity to set the Gamecocks’ sights forward to the final 15 games of their 30-game SEC schedule.
“I still think this team can play a little bit better than we’ve played,” he recalled telling his players.
With three road and two home SEC series remaining, the Gamecocks (27-10, 8-7) play their third-to-last non- conference game of the season tonight at home against the College of Charleston, which USC beat 7-0 on April 4 in Mount Pleasant.
USC has already lost two midweek games this season, to Wofford and at Francis Marion last week, but a victory tonight would give the Gamecocks a five-game season sweep of Charleston-based teams, as they already won both contests against The Citadel and their only meeting with Charleston Southern.
Despite USC’s blowout victory over the Cougars (25-12, 14-7 Southern Conference), they seem to pose a bigger challenge than The Citadel. The Cougars sit atop the Southern Conference standings after winning two of three games last weekend against Samford.
The Gamecocks tonight will start junior left-hander Nolan Belcher (2-1, 1.50 earned-run average). He allowed three hits and no runs in 52/3 innings last week against The Citadel — his first start of the season.
Charleston will go with senior right-hander Ryan West (3-3, 3.27), who started the first game against USC and acquitted himself reasonably well. He allowed six hits and two runs in five innings, but took the loss.
“If Ryan West has a good game and throws strikes and has his best stuff on the mound, and we play good defensively and don’t give them anything, I think we have a chance to play with them,” said Cougars coach Monte Lee. “We have a really good pitching staff.
“If you can win a game like this, or play well against a team like South Carolina, it gives you some momentum and some positive things to talk about with your team going into the weekend.”
While the Cougars lead the Southern Conference with a 2.75 team ERA, the Gamecocks rank third in the SEC with a 2.98 ERA.
Tanner also knows his team can pitch. What he liked most about last weekend’s sweep of Mississippi State was the progress of his hitters, including freshman catcher Grayson Greiner.
Greiner entered the weekend hitting .227, tied for second worst among USC regulars. He improved his batting average to .240 during the sweep by hitting two doubles and a solo home run.
He has now reached base in 10 consecutive games and is hitting .304 in his last nine games, with five runs batted in. Six of his seven hits during those nine games went for extra bases (four doubles and two homers, including a grand slam against The Citadel).
Greiner’s recent hot streak is just one of the reasons why Tanner thinks the Gamecocks can continue their surge, as they are now 7-2 in the SEC since starting 1-5.
“We’re a little bit older now,” Tanner said. “I know we started young. They’ve played a lot of baseball, and I hope that we’re able to hit one of those strides in these last 18 or 19 games. In this league, it’s give a punch, take a punch. That’s the way it goes. You’ve got to be able to respond. We’ve had some adversity, and we’ve bounced back a little bit.”
Staff writer Tommy Braswell contributed to this story.