For Gamecocks to surge into NCAA Tournament, the hits need to keep on coming

Max Schrock (22) and Kyle Martin (33) are two of just three regular South Carolina starters hitting above .300 this season. (File/AP Photo/The Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

COLUMBIA — When South Carolina took the field for what seemed a must-win series rubber game against Auburn, the Gamecocks did so with three starters in their lineup hitting .188 or less. One weekend later, USC won its biggest conference series of the season by belting out 31 runs against then-third-ranked Texas A&M.

Such is the head-scratching nature of a Gamecocks squad which is making a late push to make the NCAA Tournament for the 16th consecutive season. While not every weekend will present the blustery conditions which facilitated such high-scoring games in College Station, there’s no question South Carolina (30-22, 12-15 SEC) is a much more capable team when it’s ably swinging the bat. USC’s .350 batting average against Texas A&M was its highest in a SEC weekend series this season — and the Gamecocks are still last in the league in hitting.

“You can point to the Wil Crowe thing ... but the reality is, the offense just wasn’t good,” said ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson, referring to the loss of USC’s No. 1 pitcher, out for this season and next due to a torn elbow ligament which required Tommy John surgery.

“There’s no way you would think Connor Bright would be hitting 30, 40 points below .200. (Marcus) Mooney has battled injuries the whole year. (Max) Schrock’s battled a few injuries. There were some guys you though would take a natural step up because that’s what happens, that in many ways took a step back. I think they thought (Madison) Stokes would adjust to college a little better than he has. (Clark) Scolamiero’s given them a little shot in the arm here the last few weeks, and I kind of like him. But still, if you look at the offensive numbers, they’re not very good.”

Outside of Elliott Caldwell, Kyle Martin and Schrock — the only three USC regulars hitting over .300 — they haven’t. And that’s made life very difficult on a USC pitching staff which has been hamstrung on the front end by Crowe’s absence, and which hasn’t developed in relief as many envisioned it would.

But what gives USC a shot down the stretch here is that so many players with scuffling averages have still managed to deliver. Mooney, who missed nearly a month with a hamstring injury, was hitting .160 before he turned into the second coming of Derek Jeter with his .700 performance in College Station. Scolamiero is hitting just .211, but went 5-for-11 against A&M. D.C. Arendas is batting .223 but has an on-base percentage of over .400. And Mount Pleasant’s Connor Bright — who hit .311 last season — surely has the potential to be better than the .149 average he’s saddled with right now.

“The reality is, if they don’t hit, they weren’t going to win (last weekend). And they went down there against one of the best pitching staffs in the country and pinned 30 runs, or whatever it was, on them in three games. Nobody’s done that against A&M the whole year,” said Peterson, a former college pitcher at Stanford who made 20 appearances in the majors.

“They have the dudes. It’s there. Connor Bright is not a guy who hits .170, or whatever he’s hitting. Can he catch fire for a few weeks? Sure. He absolutely can. He’s shown in the past he has the ability to hit. Is he going to be in the lineup and have a chance to do it? I don’t know. But a few of those guys show you at least enough history that you think, all right, maybe we can get hot for a few weeks and make this happen. They did it for one weekend.”

And they have one more to go, beginning Thursday night at Carolina Stadium against No. 1 LSU. The Tigers may have won a three-game series over the Aggies earlier this season, but Peterson believes the two squads are very comparable. “The LSU-A&M series was extremely even the whole weekend,” he said. “And I think that if you talk to (LSU head coach Paul) Mainieri and those guys, they thought they were pretty comparable teams in a lot of different ways.”

LSU’s only SEC series loss this season was against Kentucky, which is the only conference foe the Gamecocks have swept. And as tough as it’s been at times for South Carolina this season — and losses to the likes of Furman and Presbyterian have been very tough indeed — this end-of-the-season schedule, which has loomed so ominously for weeks, may well prove a lifesaver. USC might have no chance to save its season at all if its final two opponents weren’t so highly-rated, giving the Gamecocks a last-ditch chance to boost their RPI and their NCAA resume during the most important time of the year. Their RPI jumped 17 points after the series win at Texas A&M.

“Kind of the beauty and the detriment of the RPI system is, you can make pretty significant swings in a few weeks,” Peterson said. “History indicates that the RPI really matters. But I think when we look back a few weeks ago and look at South Carolina’s schedule, you look at it and say they better start winning because of who they have left. The reality is, who they have left is about the only thing that would allow them to get out of the hole. ... So I think in a strange way, it worked out as well as it possibly could given their record a week and a half ago.”

USC still has to beat USC Upstate tonight, and find a way against LSU (43-8, 19-7). A sweep at the hands of the Tigers, as Jim Shonerd of Baseball America has pointed out, might leave the Gamecocks faced with winning the SEC tournament as their only route to the NCAAs. But the selection committee pays close attention to a team’s final 15 games, giving USC the chance to impress with a strong finish. Peterson said the committee also looks at a team’s record versus the RPI top 50, against which USC is a respectable 7-8 heading into this weekend.

A sweep, or even a series win over LSU, might be enough for USC to extend an NCAA Tournament streak which dates back to 2000. Salvaging one game might force the Gamecocks to win some games at the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., where they’ll have to play a single-elimination game to get into the double-elimination pool. Either way, South Carolina will be in an uncharacteristically nervous spot when the NCAA bids are announced on May 25.

“The LSU series is still very much a must-win for the Gamecocks,” said Kendall Rogers of D1baseball.com. “Win that series, and with a win in Hoover, I think they’d be in the field, but still very close. They could leave no doubt by taking two from LSU and making a strong run in Hoover, however.”

ESPN’s Peterson agreed. “Hoover is extremely important. You can’t go down to Hoover and lose the first game,” he said. “There were certain years they could do that, where they probably preferred to do that, because they were already in a great situation as far as the postseason. I think if you win two this weekend and go down to Hoover and win two, you put yourself in a pretty good spot. If you don’t do that, you put yourself in a spot where you have to sit and not really know what’s going to happen on Memorial Day, and that hasn’t happened there in a while.”

GOLSON WATCH

— Today’s update in the Everett Golson sweepstakes is that the former Notre Dame quarterback plans to visit Georgia, according to Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A report one day earlier had Golson liked with Florida State, and ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported Monday that Golson submitted a list of 10 schools — including South Carolina — to Notre Dame’s compliance office when he decided to transfer.

Among Gamecocks fans, there’s been a lot of interest in this soap opera, given the combination of Golson’s Myrtle Beach roots and the lack of a proven signal-caller at USC. While hard information is very difficult to come by in this situation, South Carolina from the start has not seemed a real option. The AJC story Tuesday went as far as to say USC “by all accounts, is apparently out of the running.”

That probably shouldn’t be a surprise. USC didn’t recruit Golson very hard out of Myrtle Beach High School, and Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said during the offseason he wasn’t planning to bring in a graduate transfer quarterback. We might get a little more clarity on the USC side of this Wednesday, given that Spurrier is scheduled to speak with reporters on an SEC conference call wrapping up spring practice.

— USC women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley on Monday night received the Willie Jefferies Ambassador for Sports Award at the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame’s annual banquet in Columbia. Staley led USC to a program-best 34-3 record and first Final Four berth this past season, and played a major role in cultivating a fan base which allowed USC to lead the nation in average attendance.

— Several USC spring sports are currently active in postseason play. The women’s golf team, which features Katelyn Dambaugh of Goose Creek, won the NCAA Raleigh Regional last weekend and advanced to the NCAA Championships in Bradenton, Fla., May 22-25. The men’s golf team is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Bremerton (Wash.) Regional, where it begins play Thursday. The men’s championship is May 29-June 3, also in Bradenton. Golf Channel will carry live broadcasts of both the men’s and women’s championships.

USC’s softball team is bound for Tallahassee, Fla., where it will play in an NCAA regional at No. 9 national seed Florida State. The Gamecocks open against Central Florida on Friday. And the women’s tennis team’s loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament last weekend at Virginia brought an end to the playing career of North Charleston’s Meghan Blevins, whose 54 match victories this season were the most by any USC player in nearly three decades.