A three-pronged plan for how the Gamecocks can reach the NCAA baseball tournament

South Carolina is trying to reach the NCAA baseball tournament for the 16th consecutive season. (File/Paul Zoeller/Staff)

COLUMBIA — After a stirring series victory over Vanderbilt which rekindled optimism over this South Carolina baseball season, Tuesday brought a sobering reminder of how tenuous the Gamecocks’ position remains. USC’s first series win in five weeks raised its RPI all of one point, those two triumphs over the defending national champions somewhat mitigated by a midweek loss to Presbyterian.

So clearly there’s still plenty of work for South Carolina to do, given that its official NCAA RPI remains 54th, sandwiched between Memphis and UAB. But this season is hardly a lost cause, which is why it’s so surprising to read social media comments about fans who’ve already given up. That runs quite counter to USC’s history of solid fan support regardless of record — see the 1998 and ’99 football campaigns — but maybe people have been spoiled by those three straight trips to Omaha.

Anyway, assumptions can be tricky things, and this season is no more finished than those two wins over Vanderbilt guaranteed a return to the College World Series. With four SEC series left, and two of them against struggling programs, there is opportunity for the Gamecocks to make a push toward a 16th straight NCAA Tournament bid and extend the conference’s longest streak of postseason play. Here is the three-pronged plan for making it happen:

1. No more midweek losses

As tough as many of these SEC defeats have been — and the three routs at Florida were tough indeed — several of USC’s conference setbacks have been one-run or extra-inning affairs that South Carolina had a chance to win. The real killers are losses to teams like Winthrop and Presbyterian, with RPIs of 97 and 112, respectively. USC has three mid-week games left beginning tonight at Furman, and they need to sweep them all.

In fairness, these are no-win games for teams like USC, the big dog in a state where many smaller schools have very competitive programs. With league weekend series coming up, USC is always going to save its best arms, which means a spot starter — like sophomore Reed Scott, going tonight at Flour Field in Greenville — usually gets the call mid-week.

For a South Carolina team with a fairly thin rotation, even more so now with Wil Crowe lost, that’s problematic to begin with. Then you add in the fact that many of these smaller schools expect to be able to compete with, or even beat USC, and no wonder the Gamecocks seem to be in a dogfight every Tuesday night. Last season they lost to Charleston Southern and The Citadel, but their performance in league play was good enough for the NCAA selection committee to look past those defeats.

That’s not the case this year. Hey, no crime in losing to 20th-ranked College of Charleston and ace Taylor Clarke on the opening day of the season, or at an NCAA-bound Coastal Carolina in extra innings. But losses to Presbyterian and Winthrop leave a mark, as would setbacks to Furman (RPI of 207), Wofford (139), or USC Upstate (234), the last three non-conference games remaining on South Carolina’s slate.

2. Get to 15 SEC victories

At 8-10 in the SEC, there’s reason for hand-wringing among South Carolina fans. But there’s also reason for hope — even now, the Gamecocks are just three games out of third in the Eastern Division, so a lot can change in one weekend. And USC plays in such a strong conference, it would be almost guaranteed an NCAA berth if it can just break even in league play.

Over the past 10 years, just one school that’s finished with a winning overall record and a .500 mark in SEC play has been left out of the NCAA Tournament – Alabama in 2007, when the Tide went 15-15 in the SEC, 31-26 overall, and somehow sat home during the postseason. Florida also finished 15-15 that season, but the Gators were a game under .500 overall, which probably tells you something about the strength — or lack thereof — of the SEC in a year when just five member teams made the regionals.

That’s not the case this season, when four SEC schools are in the top 10. So getting to .500 in conference play, which by itself is going to get you into the NCAA Tournament almost every time, has to be the short-term goal. It might not even take that much — over the last decade, 16 SEC programs have made the NCAAs with losing league marks. Texas A&M got in two years ago at 13-16. Vandy made it in 2009 at 12-17. Three under-.500 SEC teams made it in both 2013 and 2005.

Granted, all those teams probably had better RPIs than South Carolina has now. But that kind of track record still says something about the historic strength of the SEC. USC can certainly help itself this weekend with three games against 5-13 Tennessee, and then three next weekend at home against 7-11 Auburn. And end-of-the year series against No. 2 Texas A&M and No. 1 LSU offer prime chances to bump up that RPI and build that resume all at the same time.

At 8-10 now, USC needs to go 7-5 the rest of the way against SEC opponents to break even. Good weekends against Tennessee and Auburn could certainly take care of much of the heavy lifting before those series against Texas A&M and LSU arrive.

3. Help yourself in Hoover

Oh, the Hoover Met. If there’s a Bermuda Triangle for South Carolina baseball, it’s that ballpark in south Birmingham where even very good USC teams turn into the ’89 Braves. The team that won the national championship in 2010 went 0-2 in Hoover, losing in the SEC Tournament to Ole Miss and Auburn. The team that won the national title the next season went 1-2. It’s been two-and-Dreamland-barbecue for the Gamecocks in Hoover too many times to count.

But for this year’s squad, Hoover needs to be viewed as a real opportunity. Those games in the SEC Tournament can only help a squad trying to play its way into the NCAAs out of the best league in America. While it might be too much to expect a deep run from this bunch, a couple of wins in Hoover could go a long way toward burnishing USC’s tournament resume, should it finish somewhere around .500 in the SEC during the regular season.

If USC finishes about where it is now in the standings, which would be sixth overall, it would open the SEC Tournament in a single-elimination game against the No. 11 seed, which right now is Auburn. Win that, and you’re into the double-elimination bracket with a team that isn’t intimidated by higher seeds. Even going 2-2 in Hoover would likely help South Carolina state its case for an at-large bit, not to mention give another little boost to that RPI.

The Gamecocks are still walking a high-wire here. Lose to Wofford next week, get swept by Tennessee this weekend, and the situation becomes dire. There’s very little room for error. At the same time, if the Gamecocks can sweep their remaining non-conference opponents, get to .500 in the SEC, and win two games in Hoover, that gets them to 37-23 overall on selection day. That’s about where Alabama and Kentucky finished last season — when they both made the NCAA Tournament.