COLUMBIA — Last weekend may have had the feel of a Super Regional for South Carolina, but the Gamecocks’ last-gasp push to extend the SEC’s longest streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances begins with something much less familiar — a win-or-go-home situation.
That’s the state USC finds itself in now, after suffering its first losing record in conference play in 18 years. The Gamecocks open the SEC Tournament at 2 p.m. Tuesday as the No. 10 seed, and in a single-elimination game against No. 7 seed Missouri. The winner moves into the double-elimination bracket Wednesday against No. 2 seed Vanderbilt, with a chance to burnish its resume for the NCAA selection committee.
The loser? If it’s South Carolina, the season — and a run of 15 straight NCAA appearances — is almost certainly over. Just four SEC teams with 13 regular-season conference wins have made the NCAA field over the past decade, and the Gamecocks’ RPI of 60 probably isn’t high enough to merit serious consideration.
“Obviously, your season is on the line in this one game. That’s part of it,” Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook said Monday on a conference call with reporters.
“The first game is kind of a do-or-die situation. But at the same time, we’re going to have to make a pretty good run in this tournament to have a chance to be in the conversation of being an NCAA Tournament team. And making a deep run is usually very, very difficult if you don’t win your first game. So we’re going to take it as a great opportunity, and we’ll see if we can get off to a great start.”
USC (32-24, 13-17 SEC) could have helped its cause with a series victory last weekend over No. 1 LSU, but after taking the opener the Gamecocks were held to a combined seven hits and three runs in the final two games. That pins South Carolina’s hopes on this week’s tournament at Hoover (Ala.) Metropolitan Stadium, where the Gamecocks have rarely played well outside of an unblemished run to the title in 2004.
The Gamecocks have lost five straight games in the SEC Tournament, and haven’t won more than a single game in the event since 2007. In most of those years, USC’s postseason future was already well secured before it took the field at Hoover Met, so the tournament served as little more than a tune-up. This time around, it’s a life boat.
“We’ve got a new season starting Tuesday,” said USC first baseman Kyle Martin, “and we’re going to take it one game at a time from there.”
They’ll do it with a lineup best by injuries. Right fielder Elliott Caldwell continues to suffer from the sprained knee which knocked him out of the finale against LSU. Outfielder Connor Bright, a Mount Pleasant native, didn’t make the trip to Hoover due to a shoulder injury suffered May 8 at Texas A&M, and which kept him out of the LSU series. Bright was scheduled to undergo an MRI Monday, Holbrook said.
But the biggest concern remains second baseman Max Schrock, USC’s third-leading hitter, who has been hampered for two weeks by a sprained wrist which forced him out of the final game against LSU. “One of Max’s best tools is obviously swinging the bat, and it’s very, very painful for him to do that, and I don’t think that pain is going to go away in a 24-hour or 48-hour period,” Holbrook said. “We’re hopeful. Our fingers are crossed.”
USC is hardly the lone SEC program heading to Hoover with work still to do. One of those is Missouri (29-26, 15-15), whose near break-even won-loss record and low RPI of 57 might mitigate a .500 SEC mark which is typically enough to earn an at-large NCAA bid. The Tigers took two of three from USC in the regular season, both of their victories coming in one-run games.
“We have to keep winning. I think we all feel that way,” said Missouri head coach Tim Jamieson. “We don’t want to leave it up to the committee to make decisions. ... We feel like we have to make some noise down here. We don’t want to assume anything.”
In the opposite dugout, USC’s Holbrook certainly feels the same way.
“The only thing you can control is playing your best baseball this week to try and win some games,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what we have to do, but we certainly have to win some games down here, that’s for sure. And we certainly can’t lose (Tuesday) and be in the conversation.”
Martin and Schrock earned honors on the All-SEC teams announced Monday. Martin, hitting .352 with 14 homers and 56 RBI, was named first team All-SEC. Schrock, hitting .328 with 34 RBI and six homers, was named to the second team. Andrew Benintendi of Arkansas was named Player of the Year, while Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer earned Pitcher of the Year honors. LSU collected Freshman and Coach of the Year nods for pitcher Andrew Lange and Paul Mainieri, respectively.