COLUMBIA — The foothold had started to crumble the past few weeks. Assured of a postseason berth and a no-doubt NCAA Regional host on April 17, South Carolina was suddenly losing its grip.
A 2-7 SEC record had the Gamecocks clinging to the tip but knowing they couldn’t afford many more cracks or down they’d plummet, coming dangerously close to hitting the postseason-less rocks for an unthought-of fourth time in six seasons. The Gamecocks went to Kentucky over the weekend, where they had lost five straight series and seven of eight, knowing that of their final six SEC games against the Wildcats and No. 5 Tennessee, they needed to win at least two.
They host Tennessee this weekend having won three already. The Gamecocks swept Kentucky in the series.
USC (31-18, 15-12 SEC) is assured of reaching the postseason after taking the Kentucky series. Teams that win 15 SEC games with an RPI of 11 don’t miss the NCAA Tournament.
And because the NCAA last week chose Founders Park as one of its 20 potential regional hosts despite USC’s recent struggles, the chance is there for the Gamecocks to make it a no-doubt shot into the seats instead of a play at the wall. They take the Tennessee series, or get one win over the Vols and one or two wins at next week’s SEC Tournament, they should get into the top 16 needed to survive the regional-host cut.
“I just think it’s a compliment to this team and everything they’ve been through. We’ve played the hardest schedule in the country, and I think we were rewarded by being in the 20 for that,” USC coach Mark Kingston said. “But again, there’s still a lot of work to be done and we have to focus on each next game, and that stuff will take care of itself.”
The Gamecocks are in, though, and that’s the relief. It’s stunning that USC baseball fell to the spot of having to sweat a postseason berth after starting the last decade as one of the best programs in the sport, but nothing lasts forever.
How quickly it went from automatic postseason berths to having to actually comprehend four misses in six tries still remains one of the biggest disappointments surrounding USC athletics. The Gamecocks went from driving a Maserati to three straight national championship appearances and winning two from 2010-12 to jump-starting an AMC Gremlin most of the past decade.
Like in all sports, it was a decision that looked bad after the fact because it didn’t work. It was a no-brainer to promote Chad Holbrook to head coach when Ray Tanner accepted USC’s vacant athletic director job in 2012 because Holbrook had been an instrumental part of the Gamecocks’ success.
He, as Tanner said during Holbrook’s assistant coach days, was a head coach who had never been a head coach. He was being pursued for other SEC head-coaching jobs. He knew the system, the players and everything it took to build and sustain a successful program.
A fielding error and current St. Louis Cardinals reliever Tyler Webb walking in the winning run during the 2013 Super Regionals denied the Gamecocks a fourth straight berth in the College World Series. The Gamecocks lost a home regional in 2014 and didn’t make the postseason in 2015, the first time in 16 years they didn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament.
A 46-win Super Regional season in 2016 wasn’t enough to overcome another season without a tournament berth in 2017, and following an assessment of the program with Tanner, Holbrook resigned (he is currently head coach at College of Charleston). Kingston took over and led the 2018 team to a Super Regional but missed the postseason in 2019.
There was no tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19, but the heat has been on Kingston ever since he said “yes” to the job. The Gamecocks were a postseason program for dozens of years before they started winning national championships, the one program on campus that could boast that.
To see it miss every other year, especially after being at the pinnacle so recently? There weren’t words to describe the bitterness of that pill.
It’s why the Gamecocks’ recent slump had some thinking, “Here they go again,” but the Kentucky series alleviated the fears. There is a postseason this year, USC will be in it and could start it where so many others have started — on the Gamecocks’ home field.
All they have to do is keep winning. They’ve always had the pitching to make a deep postseason run, but their hitting was what led them to that 2-7 skid since April 17. The Gamecocks came into the final game of the Mississippi State series (which got them that elusive second win in the stretch) hitting .159 in their last eight SEC games.
USC won that game, then scored 32 runs in three games in Lexington.
“The last couple of days have been all about putting good swings on balls,” said Andrew Eyster, who delivered the big blow in Game 2 with a laser-beamed grand slam into the bullpen. “Overall, our offense and our approach, I think everyone’s satisfied with it.”
As are they with the wins. The Gamecocks will dance, but where is still left in their hands to decide.