COLUMBIA — Oh, the predicament this South Carolina baseball team finds itself in. After suffering losses to opponents from the Big South and the Southern Conference, the Gamecocks now have one way of maintaining their flagging postseason hopes — by winning in the mighty SEC.
That’s the rather sobering reality right now for USC, which Tuesday night dropped its second consecutive mid-week game to a small-conference opponent. The 2-1 loss to an under-.500 Furman team came seven days after a home setback to Presbyterian, and continued a trend of struggles against mid-week opponents between weekend conference series.
Since the SEC season began, USC is 3-4 in mid-week games, with two remaining. While dropping the occasional mid-week game is nothing new for any major-college program, or the Gamecocks — who lost to The Citadel and Charleston Southern last year, and at Francis Marion in their most recent College World Series campaign — they’re doing more of it this season, and need to make up the difference in SEC play to keep alive hopes of a 16th straight NCAA Tournament berth.
“There’s always going to be good baseball teams in this state, and we’re going to try to win most of our mid-week games, and historically we have. This year, we’ve had a few bumps in the road,” head coach Chad Holbrook said Thursday, before the Gamecocks departed for a three-game SEC series at Tennessee opening Friday at 6 p.m.
“We’ve set a pretty good standard. This year, we’ve had our tail kicked from time to time. We hope to get back to where we’re used to being real soon.”
While USC took two of three from No. 20 College of Charleston to open the season, mid-week games between SEC series present more of a challenge for a team like the Gamecocks, which save their best starting pitchers for the weekend. Even so, USC lost just one of those games over its national championship campaigns of 2010 and ’11, and has dropped only two in each of the past two seasons.
In that context, losing four — USC also dropped games to Winthrop and at Coastal Carolina — in one year stands out. “I don’t really think you can put your finger on it,” said left-hander Jack Wynkoop, who will start the opener at Tennessee. “It’s baseball. It’s a tough game, and we have some good teams in the state of South Carolina.”
Those mid-week setbacks are a large reason why USC’s RPI is a less-than-impressive 57th, right between Alabama-Birmingham and New Mexico. Although 16 SEC teams over the last decade have made the NCAA Tournament with losing conference records — including a 12-17 Vanderbilt squad in 2009 — South Carolina’s RPI almost demands the Gamecocks (25-17, 8-10 SEC) finish at .500 in league play to merit at-large consideration.
They get there, they’ll be in good shape. In the past decade, only one SEC team with a winning overall record and a .500 league mark has missed the NCAAs — Alabama in 2007, when just five SEC schools made the tournament. To break even in league play, the Gamecocks need to finish 7-5 over a stretch run which also includes series against Auburn, No. 1 Texas A&M and No. 2 LSU.
But this weekend the focus is Tennessee (16-20, 5-13), and trying to build off last week’s series victory over No. 5 Vanderbilt that momentarily rekindled the Gamecocks’ postseason hopes.
“It’s an important week, obviously,” Holbrook said. “Where we’re sitting, we’re close to being able to get close to .500 in the league, and that puts you in a good spot when it comes to postseason. We keep playing consistent baseball, like we did (last) Friday and Saturday against Vandy, maybe we can find ourselves in the conversation of getting to play after our regular season is over.”