COLUMBIA — It seems like so long ago now, but South Carolina left fielder Tanner English still remembers what the Gamecocks’ 1-5 start in Southeastern Conference play felt like.
“There were a lot of quiet bus rides and lot of people that were just like, ‘What the heck?’” he said. “Going down 1-5 isn’t fun for anybody, especially with a lot of high expectations, which you don’t really want to pay attention to normally, but it’s there. It’s obviously there.”
On March 24, when USC reached 1-5 by losing to Florida, its back-to-back national championships seemed like a distant memory. Few observers thought the Gamecocks might find themselves playing for an SEC regular season championship in the year’s final series.
“Well, I know our fans didn’t think that,” said ace pitcher Michael Roth. “They thought the apocalypse was coming. We were kind of just joking around, ‘all right, well, let’s just make the playoffs,’ after we started 1-5. But we knew we were a good team.”
And here they are, entering this weekend’s home series against LSU, with a 17-9 SEC record, right on the heels of 18-9 Kentucky for their fourth league championship, and second straight.
Second-ranked USC needs to win at least two of three against ninth-ranked LSU (17-10) and hope fourth-ranked Kentucky loses at least two of three to Mississippi State. Even if Kentucky wins two of three, USC could win the championship by sweeping LSU. One win over LSU this weekend won’t be enough for the Gamecocks.
Both series begin tonight, but Roth knows USC can’t afford to have one eye on Kentucky and Mississippi State.
“We’re not making it bigger than it is,” he said. “We know what the deal is with the standings, but we can’t focus on what Kentucky’s doing, because if we do, then LSU will embarrass us. I guess if you look at it, obviously winning the SEC is a goal, but some people don’t look at it as the ultimate goal. If we don’t achieve winning the SEC, then there’s still the prize of making it to Omaha and winning the ultimate goal. So I guess that’s how you keep it in perspective.”
For a team that has come home from the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., the past two years with the national championship trophy, an SEC regular season title would be nice. So would a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, which USC is still contending. But the bottom line for this team is that anything short of a Super Regional appearance will be a disappointment.
As USC prepares for the postseason, the status of pitcher Colby Holmes, their second-most consistent starter, remains a concern. Because of a shoulder injury, Holmes hadn’t pitched since April 22 at Auburn when he took the mound Tuesday against USC Upstate, in a game that was ultimately cancelled because of rain. Holmes threw 19 pitches in 2/3 of an inning and allowed three hits and three runs (all earned). He said he felt no pain, but struggled with control.
While his line wasn’t official, it did little to ease coach Ray Tanner’s uncertainty about him.
“The outing was not exactly what we had hoped for,” Tanner said. “I’m a little bit confused, to be honest with you. Maybe he was just a little bit rusty from having some time off. I’m not sure. Had things gone really, really good (Tuesday) night for Colby, we probably would’ve flipped him back and given him a start on Saturday. I’m not sure now that he’s ready for that.”
Tanner doesn’t know who will start Saturday. It could be Holmes. Or it could be freshman Jordan Montgomery, who will not pitch in his usual No. 2 spot due to recent struggles. Sophomore Forrest Koumas takes Montgomery’s place. Elbow pain sidelined Koumas from March 31 until May 2.
“He’s been around the block,” Tanner said. “He pitched in the College World Series. So his experience factor is a big deal in getting him back out there. He feels good, and he’s done it before. Is that any guarantee for us? Of course not.”