Sapakoff: NCAA losers' bracket is nothing Gamecocks' bullpen depth can't handle

The experts doubt South Carolina but shortstop Joey Pankake and the rest of the Gamecocks plan to take a step beyond the super regionals this year. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

The South Carolina Gamecocks entered the NCAA tournament determined to grab some national baseball respect, the royal variety the program earned with back-to-back College World Series titles in 2010 and 2011. They carried the thunder for at least another year.

Things change quickly. When ESPN gathered its eight college baseball analysts this week and asked them to predict the College World Series field, 21 different teams received mention.

Former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell had Clemson in his Omaha eight.

No one picked the Gamecocks.

But the chip-on-shoulder approach must wait. A 4-3 loss to No. 2 seed Maryland on Saturday night at the Columbia Regional was South Carolina's first defeat in an opening-round regional since a pair of losses at East Carolina in 2009.

Now the Gamecocks must oust the scrappy Campbell Camels on Sunday at Carolina Stadium, beat Maryland Sunday night and top the Terrapins again Monday night.

Which plays precisely to the strength of this semi-charmed team.

Through win streaks and injuries, comebacks and tough losses, a sizzling start and a sour SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks have distinguished themselves with sensational pitching depth.

All middle reliever Taylor Widener did Saturday night was go 6.1 innings without giving up a run. The freshman right-hander gave up only two hits.

If it wasn't Widener, it might have been junior right-hander Cody Mincey (5-0, 1.04 ERA).

Or freshman lefty Josh Reagan (3-0, 0.36 ERA).

"I hope we can look back after the weekend and say that the outing by Taylor Widener was one of the main reasons we were able to win a few games here," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "Mincey hasn't thrown. We got to rest (closer) Joel (Seddon). We have a fresh bullpen for the most part."

Seddon, Mincey and more

South Carolina entered the Columbia Regional with a bullpen comparable to any in the country: 19-1 with a 1.53 earned run average. Opponents are batting just .200 against Gamecock relievers.

That's better than 2013 (.249), 2012 (.217), 2011 (.223) or 2010 (.216) - though less potent BBCOR bats were legislated into college baseball in 2011.

"Obviously, we have Mincey and Joel," first baseman Kyle Martin said. "We have a bunch of other guys who can come in, throw strikes and get outs or do whatever we need them to do. And we have guys that can get lefties out just as well as anybody can."

Beyond starters Jordan Montgomery, Jack Wynkoop and Will Crowe, the Gamecocks have eight pitchers with victories.

Closers Matt Price and Tyler Webb are gone, but Seddon is similarly effective: 14 saves, a 3-1 record, a 0.83 ERA.

That's going to be tough for Campbell and Maryland to deal with.

Fan test, too

The Gamecocks also have their uncanny rally card left to play, perhaps more than once. South Carolina has won five times this season when trailing entering the ninth inning.

"It's a long way from over," Holbrook said late Saturday night.

This is a test for fans, too.

The Sunday routine in Columbia isn't usually church, brunch and Camels vs. Gamecocks in an elimination game.

Carolina Stadium wasn't sold out Saturday night, but check out the other regionals on TV; a crowd of 6,813 looks good, even in an 8,242-capacity ballpark.

So there will be noise Sunday afternoon against Campbell. Some will come from fans, more from the AC/DC "Thundersruck" rock blasts blaring before and during the game.

If South Carolina pitchers do their thing, there will be another game with Maryland Sunday night.

And a showdown Monday night.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff