Gamecocks eye a national seed

South Carolina’s Whit Merrifield says the third-seeded Gamecocks are hoping to make a statement in this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover, Ala.

COLUMBIA -- What does South Carolina need to do at this week's SEC baseball tournament to secure a national seed in the NCAA tournament? Ray Tanner, coach of the 43-13 Gamecocks, asserts your opinion is as accurate as his.

"I don't spend any time speculating about that," Tanner said. "I know we've won 43 games and we're in position to host the regional. Are we a national seed? I don't know. I'm not sure.

"Some people say, 'Oh, I think you are.' I don't get a chance to provide any input in that decision."

The Gamecocks are close, for sure, but there are no guarantees until the announcement is made Monday. In the meantime, winning would help.

Third-seeded South Carolina begins SEC tourney play today (approximately 2 p.m.) in Hoover, Ala., against No. 6 seed Mississippi (36-20) and SEC pitcher of the year Drew Pomeranz.

The Gamecocks will send sophomore left-hander Nolan Belcher (3-0, 2.03 ERA in 26 2/3 innings) to the mound to face Pomeranz, the 6-5 lefty who is 7-2 with a 2.39 ERA.

The winner of this afternoon's game will face the winner of Auburn and Alabama. A potential matchup with the Tigers (39-17) would be significant, considering they're also vying for a national seed.

Why would getting that seed be so significant? It would lock up homefield advantage for the regional and super regional rounds of the NCAA tournament.

The Gamecocks haven't played a home super regional since 2004 -- by no coincidence, their most recent trip to the College World Series.

Most national analysts have South Carolina just ahead of teams such as Cal State- Fullerton, Georgia Tech and Auburn. Any slipups, and USC might wind up on the outside of that bubble.

Auburn dropped two of three at home to the Gamecocks early in the regular season, but they have won five consecutive series entering the postseason including a sweep of Ole Miss last week.

A late-season series loss at Kentucky is really hurting the Gamecocks right now. It puts more emphasis on this week's SEC tournament.

"We definitely need to win a couple of games," Gamecocks outfielder Whit Merrifield said. "We're going down there to try to win the tournament and let things fall in place after that."

As if the national seed weren't enough to motivate the Gamecocks this week, they received a roundabout pep talk from Tanner on Monday.

"I reminded our guys if we don't go deep in the tournament, we'll come home and do some two-a-days, to try and be ready for a regional," he said. "You can extend your stay, or come home and practice. Is there anybody unsure of what they want to do?"

Merrifield, for one, said he'd rather stay in Alabama.

South Carolina had a shot last weekend to lay claim to the SEC regular season title, but Florida took the first two games of the series to seize the crown. Still, it's not as if the season is all for naught. On the contrary, it's only now beginning.

"We finished a game back of the SEC regular season champions," Merrifield said. "It's not like it's exactly been a down year. We're looking forward to the tournament and proving that we are one of the best teams in the country and the conference. Hopefully, we'll make a statement in Hoover."

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