COLUMBIA — Ray Tanner no longer leads South Carolina’s baseball program. On Saturday afternoon, Tanner, now USC’s athletic director, watched the Gamecocks’ series finale against Texas A&M from a luxury suite at Carolina Stadium. But as the Gamecocks reached the midpoint of coach Chad Holbrook’s first season, Tanner’s influence remained with them.
USC beat Texas A&M, 6-3, on the strength of two home runs from LB Dantzler and one from Wando High graduate Connor Bright. Twenty-eight games into the 56-game regular season, much work remains to make Holbrook’s first year a success. Still, the importance of USC sweeping Texas A&M this weekend cannot be understated.
The Gamecocks (22-6, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) were coming off a sweep at the hands of Arkansas, their first at home since 1999. They were 2-4 in the SEC with 24 league games remaining. As they welcomed the Aggies, they were playing their final home series until April 19-21.
The Texas A&M series was not going to make or break USC’s season. And there is still no telling if the Gamecocks can mirror last season, when they started 1-5 in the SEC and won 16 of the next 19 league games en route to their third straight College World Series finals appearance.
Yet this weekend, they showed admirable resilience by refusing to bend to their early struggles and rebounding from offensive problems in their first two league series.
One of the many cues Holbrook took from Tanner is not checking the SEC standings until 15 or 18 games are done. After Saturday’s win, Holbrook quoted two Tanner axioms, both of which applied to the weekend.
“This league will give and this league takes away,” Tanner would say.
Entering the weekend, the SEC pitchers who the Gamecocks faced had given them very little. In six league games, USC was hitting 34 of 198 (.172) with 14 runs. Against Texas A&M, USC hit 23 of 93 (.247) and scored 15 runs.
Dantzler finished his masterful first half with two solo homers. One tied the game at 2 in the fourth inning. The other put USC up 4-3 in the eighth, after Texas A&M had evened the score in the seventh. He is now hitting .357 with nine homers and 32 RBIs. He had 10 homers and 48 RBIs last season.
“I never have hit home runs like this,” Dantzler said.
The other Tanner saying that Holbrook quoted Saturday: “You only go away if you choose to do so.”
In 2011, pitcher Nolan Belcher missed the season because of Tommy John surgery on his elbow. A year earlier, fellow left-hander Adam Westmoreland was sidelined by the same surgery. Both are now throwing better in their final season than anybody could have imagined.
On Friday, Belcher allowed two runs in 81/3 innings. In each of his past five starts, he has given USC at least 103 pitches. His totals in those starts: four earned runs, 35 strikeouts and no walks in 40 innings. For the season, he has a 1.57 ERA with 51 strikeouts and one walk.
On Saturday, Westmoreland, he of a 4.46 career ERA before this year, gave USC another critical relief appearance: 42/3 innings, three hits, one run. On Thursday, he bailed out floundering starter Evan Beal with 32/3 innings, in which he allowed three hits and no runs. Westmoreland threw 124 pitches over the weekend and continued to prove himself as USC’s most reliable middle reliever. In 28 innings this season, he has a 0.96 ERA with 29 strikeouts and three walks.
Beal was the primary middle reliever before ace Jordan Montgomery’s elbow injury forced Beal to start for the past four series, with mixed results. Montgomery threw an encouraging bullpen session Friday. If he does so again Monday, he could start Sunday at Tennessee, Holbrook said.
A pain-free workout for Montgomery on Monday would cap five happy days for Holbrook, who couldn’t wait to end the sweep weekend by spending Easter with his family, since he has the holiday off for the first time in his career.
“I’m going to enjoy it,” he said.