COLUMBIA — On April 25, South Carolina traveled to LSU for a series that its players and coaches knew would help determine whether this season was successful or not.
This was the second of three consecutive challenging series. The Gamecocks had just swept Kentucky at home. The Wildcats ended up fading and missed the NCAA tournament. After LSU, Vanderbilt swept USC in Columbia in a rain-shortened, two-game series. There was no shame in those defeats, as the Commodores got the NCAA No. 2 national seed.
USC dropped the first game at LSU, but won the final two. Those victories were the best on the Gamecocks' baseball resume, which was good enough to earn them a regional hosting site. Now, USC coach Chad Holbrook hopes to use the intangible value gained from that series win as the Gamecocks play a best-of-3 super regional at North Carolina that starts Friday at 1 p.m.
“We'll rely on that accomplishment and it'll be something that we talk about,” Holbrook said.
Against the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, will that confidence be enough for USC to pull off a rare feat by advancing in a road NCAA tournament series?
The Gamecocks also must contend with North Carolina's talent — no small obstacle. The Tar Heels (55-9) have Baseball America's No. 7 and 61 prospects in this major league draft — third baseman Colin Moran, who could be the top pick Thursday, and left-handed starting pitcher Kent Emanuel.
Moran is hitting .348 with a team-high 13 home runs and 86 runs batted in. He also has discerning eyes — 60 walks, 22 strikeouts. Emanuel is 11-3 with a 2.70 earned run average, 88 strikeouts and 27 walks. He has thrown 120 innings this season with five complete games.
North Carolina is not perfect, but showed resilience lately — critical in this tournament. In the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels beat Clemson in 14 innings and forced extra innings by scoring five runs in the ninth. The next day, they beat North Carolina State in 18 innings after tying the game with a run in the eighth.
And in their wildest game yet, Monday night's winner-take-all regional final against Florida Atlantic, they prevailed 12-11 in 13 innings. They led 6-2 going into the ninth, saw Florida Atlantic score six runs, then they responded with two to force extra innings. In the 12th, they answered the Owls' three runs with three of their own, then finally won the game in the 13th.
The victory came with a price. Catcher Matt Roberts broke his thumb and is finished for the year. Though he is just a .195 hitter, he had only one error behind the plate. Brian Holberton had to move in from left field to replace him. Parks Jordan (.271) will likely now play left field.
Holberton (.308) started just five games at catcher this year. But he is one of seven Tar Heels hitting .300 or better, compared to USC's three. North Carolina hits .310 as a team. Its opponents hit .210.
But on Monday, coach Mike Fox had to use all three of his primary starters, taxing Emanuel the most. Benton Moss started the regional's Friday game (and threw 90 pitches), then threw five pitches Monday. Emanuel started Saturday (124 pitches), then threw 51 on Monday. Hobbs Johnson tossed 89 on Sunday and six Monday. Will Emanuel be able to rebound this weekend?
Had South Carolina (42-18) done more in the regular season, it would have received a national seed and an automatic home super regional. A Florida Atlantic win Monday would have also kept the Gamecocks in Columbia, where they are 58-8 all-time in tournament games, with 27 straight wins, and have advanced in 19 of 21 tournament rounds.
On the road, they are 35-31 and have advanced in three of 18 rounds — the 2003 and 2006 regionals at Georgia Tech and Virginia, and 2010 super regional at Coastal Carolina, a No. 4 national seed. In five road tournament rounds against national seeds, that is the only time the Gamecocks advanced.
USC attempting a breakthrough outside the Palmetto State is but one juicy storyline for this super regional. Holbrook played at North Carolina from 1990-93 and was an assistant coach there from 1994-2008 before coming to USC to join Ray Tanner's staff. Moreover, Holbrook's team is not used to failing in the tournament. USC is 33-4 since the start of the 2010 tournament, with two national titles and a runner-up finish. If USC breaks through in a super regional again, it would face the winner of the Rice at N.C. State super regional in its College World Series opener.
USC has just one holdover who played in each of the past three tournaments (and College World Series, for that matter) — Tyler Webb, in his first season as the closer. In 17 tournament appearances, all relief, he has allowed two runs on 11 hits and 12 walks in 25 innings — plus 30 strikeouts — for a 0.72 ERA.
His postseason success epitomizes USC's, though he isn't sure what causes him or his team to historically perform so much better at this time of year.
“I don't know how to explain it,” he said. “I don't really understand it. But I'm glad that switch flips. I'm sure glad we play our best baseball down the stretch.”