Gamecocks begin homestretch

Blake Cooper (8-0) will start for the South Carolina Gamecocks today when they play Alabama.

Tracy Glantz

COLUMBIA -- With two SEC home series and 16 total games remaining, is it fair for South Carolina's baseball team to begin thinking about its postseason?

After all, the red-hot Gamecocks (32-8, 14-4 SEC) are currently in prime position to host their first NCAA regional since 2007 -- and, maybe, its first super regional since 2004.

That just so happens to be USC's most recent appearance in the College World Series. Coincidence?

"In the playoffs, it's so tough to win on the road. It doesn't matter where you go," said first baseman Nick Ebert, who saw the difficulties of a road regional last season at East Carolina. "You definitely want to be at home. It's a huge, huge advantage."

Ebert, coming to life after a tough start to the season, is one of the Gamecocks who, childlike, can't help but look forward to the postseason.

"That's the big-picture goal," he said.

"We want to host the regionals and super regionals."

That's especially the case because of two-year-old Carolina Stadium, the sparkling gem of a ballpark that has yet to see tournament baseball.

"I've sat at home and dreamed about it," Ebert said. "You think about the regular season crowds we get; it's hard to imagine what it would look like in the postseason.

"We were even talking about where we could put more bleachers for the regionals. That's what we want."

No. 7 USC isn't there yet, but it's on the way. Alabama (27-15, 8-10), which comes in on a five-game winning streak, is next up.

USC senior right-hander Blake Cooper (8-0, 2.67 ERA) will face Crimson Tide junior right-hander Jimmy Nelson (5-1, 3.86 ERA) tonight.

The only home conference series after this weekend is the finale against No. 6 Florida (May 20-22).

Road series at Arkansas and Kentucky also remain. As do non-conference home games against Charleston Southern, Furman, Winthrop and Wofford.

USC has won eight of its last nine games. Since beginning the year 6-4, the Gamecocks are 26-4.

They've won every SEC series, all six, thus far. They're the only team in the league that can say that.

Even so, one person that doesn't want to get carried away with postseason talk -- for now, anyway -- is veteran head coach Ray Tanner.

"For me, it's not on the radar -- and I'm not giving you coachspeak," Tanner said Thursday. "I don't live in that world. I live from day to day.

"A lot can happen. Let's play these 16 out and see where we are."

Tanner speaks cautiously although certain question-mark areas with the team seem to be rounding into form.

Saturday starter Sam Dyson, shaky at times early in the season, is coming off a shutout that earned him the SEC pitcher of the week nod.

Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., finally fully healthy from early-season hand injuries, is back atop the team's batting average column (.342). As mentioned earlier, Ebert is creeping toward .300 and showing more power.

A team with a really solid record is starting to get even better. That's "scary," as Ebert said earlier in the week.

Tanner said winning so many tight games should prevent the Gamecocks from feeling too boastful, even with that lofty record.

"I don't think you can get our guys to tell you, 'We're really good,'" Tanner said. "We have a nice team. But I don't think our guys are patting themselves on the back.

"We've had some good wins, but we don't sit around admiring how good we are."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).