COLUMBIA — If it had just been that one game, it would have been OK.
South Carolina lost 4-1 at Arkansas on May 12 to begin a three-game series, and it was one of those defeats where one shrugs and says, “It’s baseball.” The Gamecocks played well, the other team played better.
But it pushed USC one game closer to its third straight series loss, which was realized in a 5-1 loss on May 14 (the Gamecocks won on May 13). And it was one in a string of eight losses in 11 games. And a six-week stretch of misery that has seen the Gamecocks win one series, tie another and lose four.
“It’s baseball” can’t keep happening, nor anything else that doesn’t sound like a win. USC (37-14, 15-11 SEC), newly slid to No. 13 in the D1Baseball.com Top 25, will definitely be playing somewhere in the NCAA Tournament on the first weekend in June.
Yet what was so much a sure thing three weeks ago that folks were checking reservations in Omaha for the College World Series has become a case of looking for hotels among Winston-Salem, Conway, Charlottesville and Clemson and calculating just how much time off one has from work.
Simply put, the Gamecocks are playing themselves right out of hosting an NCAA Regional, which is the biggest advantage one can have when starting the postseason. Their record, body of work, RPI (3) and strength of schedule (4) remain exemplary but the selection committee will pay attention to how teams finish the season, and a pronounced losing streak while other teams are charging hard for their own host spots adds more and more gas to the Gamecocks’ bus for a postseason road trip.
“I told the team the last couple of weeks, we weren’t playing defense or hitting at the level that needs to be done, to get where we want to go at the end of the season,” coach Mark Kingston sighed. “This weekend (at Arkansas), I thought our pitching and defense was at the level it needs to be. Now we just got to get our hitting going.”
The Gamecocks were at their apex three weeks ago with a sweep of Florida (which has since responded by sweeping two series and losing another). The wins — which were accomplished despite many of the same injuries that have dogged the team — were so impressive that USC was in consideration to take over the No. 1 spot in the national rankings.
The injuries mounted, though, and while they’re nearly eliminated — Braylen Wimmer was the team’s DH at Arkansas and could return to shortstop this week, while second baseman Will McGillis has been available for pinch-running —– the losses aren’t. The Gamecocks heavily re-shuffled their pitching rotation against the Razorbacks, Will Sanders not even making the trip due to a foot injury, and got solid starts.
But they couldn’t touch the ball, scoring a measly five runs in three games. So what’s a team to do?
“At times, we didn’t do a good enough job letting the ball get deep and making sure we saw it and use the opposite field,” Kingston said, illustrating how a team that hit the ball pretty well all season suddenly cannot. “We just didn’t have enough guys commit to using the whole field. We need to be the kind of offense that uses the whole field.”
USC has four games left in the regular season, and then the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. There is no way the Gamecocks will not play in the NCAA Tournament, but where they begin is up to them.
A win over Charlotte on Tuesday and a series win over No. 18 Tennessee this weekend gives the Gamecocks at least 40 wins going into the SEC Tournament. It’s difficult to imagine an SEC team with 40 wins (out of 56, or in the Gamecocks’ case, 55) not hosting a regional.
That’s the simplest way to remove any question before having to ask another, “Can the Gamecocks help themselves in Hoover?”
Of course they can, as any wins help. But winning in Hoover the past 17 years has been notoriously hard, USC accumulating a 12-30 record in that span. The one time the Gamecocks won, and had to since they were right on the bubble of making the NCAA Tournament, it resulted in a 3-2 Hoover record in 2017.
They still didn’t make the regionals, leading to Chad Holbrook’s exit and Kingston’s arrival.
USC will not have a losing SEC record, which is a plus as teams with losing SEC records do not host. But taking Hoover out of the equation can be accomplished by winning most if not all of the final four games this week, and that would get the Gamecocks back in consideration for a top-8 national seed as well.
Top-eight seeds host the Super Regional round if they advance. At present, the Gamecocks have taken themselves out of contention for a top-eight but can get back in, although it will require winning most if not all games this week and perhaps a game or two in Hoover.
The SEC Tournament is set up so the top-four seeds get a bye into the double-elimination phase of the bracket, while seeds 5-12 play in a single-elimination format on the first day. The Gamecocks were in the top four three weeks ago and are still fifth, but their 15-11 record is behind Vanderbilt (17-10) and LSU (17-9).
It seems likely that USC will have to play on Tuesday in the single-elimination round. A win gives the Gamecocks at least two more games. A loss after a great week probably wouldn’t matter much.
A loss after another bad week? The Gamecocks’ lousy finish will likely overcome their numbers and send them on the road for the regionals.