Florida presents ‘ultimate challenge’ for USC

Junior right-hander Logan Shore, 8-0 with a 2.14 earned run average, will start for No. 1 Florida on Friday against No. 6 South Carolina. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, file)

COLUMBIA — It’s a rotation of three eventual high draft picks, two of whom are tied for the national lead in victories, and led by a probable first-rounder with some of the best numbers in the SEC. And it’s being completely overshadowed by the arsenal of future major league arms invading Founders Park this weekend.

The starting rotation of No. 1 Florida is so acclaimed, it’s eclipsed even a trio of South Carolina pitchers who comprise one of the best staffs in the nation. Runs will almost certainly be at a premium when the top-ranked Gators meet the sixth-ranked Gamecocks in a three-game clash of SEC leaders opening Friday at 7 p.m.

“As good as those guys are, we’re certainly not throwing chopped liver at them, either,” Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook said Thursday. “Our players understand they’re going to have to pitch at a very high level to give ourselves a chance this weekend, but we have the utmost confidence in our guys.”

By any measure, South Carolina’s weekend rotation has been stellar. Friday starter Clarke Schmidt is one of 17 players tied for the national lead in victories with eight, and leads the SEC with 85 strikeouts. Saturday starter Braden Webb also has eight wins, and ranks fourth in the SEC in opposing batting average. Sunday starter Adam Hill has six wins, capping a rotation with a combined record of 22-3.

But it’s Florida’s rotation that makes pro scouts swoon. Big lefty A.J. Puk is viewed by many as the likely No. 1 pick in this year’s MLB draft, but he won’t be starting Friday night — that will be righty Logan Shore, another pitcher with eight wins on the season, along with Sunday starter Alex Faedo. All three shape up as eventual first-round picks.

“They’re going to provide the ultimate challenge,” Holbrook said. “... And you know, Florida’s going to face a first-rounder, maybe three first-rounders as well. That’s what makes this series great. We’re going to face some pretty good pitching, and I think they’re going to face some darn good arms, too.”

All the praise lavished on Florida’s staff “puts a chip on our shoulder,” said Schmidt, a sophomore. “I talked to Adam and Braden, and that’s fine with us. If you want to overlook us, that’s fine. We’ve put up some good numbers, and we’re ready to get after them to prove ourselves just the same way they want to prove themselves.”

South Carolina (33-8, 14-4 SEC) holds a one-game lead over the Gators (36-6, 13-5) in the conference race, with No. 2 Texas A&M a pair of games back. The Gamecocks are unbeaten at home this season in SEC play, but have lost nine of their last 10 to the Gators. USC’s last series win over Florida was a two-game sweep in the championship round of the 2011 College World Series.

The Gamecocks are 3-11 against the Gators since. And none of those Florida teams had a weekend rotation quite like this one.

“You can look at this on paper and be scared to death,” Holbrook said. “Luckily, the game is played between the white lines.”