COLUMBIA — A game they led 7-0 after two innings and 9-1 after their half of the sixth was won by a final score of 10-9.
But it was won. Last year, maybe that game isn’t.
And as much as the No. 20 South Carolina baseball team has some significant issues to address as it begins SEC play this weekend, the resolve of the ballclub (and a lineup that’s second in the country in hitting home runs) is what the Gamecocks are counting on.
“I’m kind of glad that we’ve had two comeback wins,” senior slugger T.J. Hopkins said after the Gamecocks swept Valparaiso last weekend. “I think it does us good that we had to come back in a hard game where we could have easily gave up and we came back and won the game, and I feel like that’s going to prepare us well for the next 10 weekends.”
USC nearly gave The Citadel the game Tuesday at Riley Park, but eked out the one-run victory after leading by eight runs. The Gamecocks, who host No. 15 Georgia in a three-game series beginning Friday, are 14-3 this season, two wins ahead of where they were last year at this time.
USC has a series win over Clemson and thus far has mostly avoided the midweek losses that plagued the team last season.
Where do they truly stand as they enter SEC play, where the competition will be drastically improved from what they’ve seen? Six of their 10 league opponents are ranked in the Top 25. Overall, the SEC has 10 teams in the Baseball America poll.
Calling for arms
USC pitchers Graham Lawson, Julian Bosnic and Logan Chapman were lost for the season before it started. Ridge Chapman (forearm strain) may be back in a month. Carmen Mlodzinski fractured his foot stepping off the mound at Clemson and won’t be back for at least five weeks, and closer Sawyer Bridges has been sporadic in appearances and production.
The Gamecocks currently have 12 pitchers they can lean on, 13 if Bridges is 100 percent and 14 if freshman Josiah Sightler, who is listed as an infielder and pitcher, is ever summoned (he has yet to even warm up as a pitcher this season).
“I didn’t think our pitchers competed very well in the middle of the game, but I thought Gage Hinson picked us up in the end and that was real important,” coach Mark Kingston said after Tuesday’s game. Asked why Hinson got the call, he answered, “Well, because everybody else was getting lit up.”
Outside of the emergence of Reid Morgan, who is 2-0 with a 1.84 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 29⅓ innings, the Gamecocks are still experimenting with all of their pitching roles. Nobody but Morgan has laid claim to a definite role for the final three-quarters of the season.
“I want to see them throw more strikes, I want to see them get more outs, Period, ” Kingston said.
The Gamecocks lead the SEC with 32 home runs. Jacob Olson has seven, Hopkins six and Luke Berryhill five.
They’re 12th in team batting average and while they’ve been good at stealing bases (10 of 14), they haven’t tried to a lot. USC and LSU (16) are the only two teams in the league with less than 20 attempts.
USC’s fielding percentage is .973 with 17 errors, but the Gamecocks have stabilized a bit since George Callil replaced Nick Neville at shortstop. Berryhill has become the team’s primary catcher while Chris Cullen has shifted to first base. Berryhill has had his problems with errant throws, but he’s also caught a few runners.
The Gamecocks’ biggest problem has been free bases. Opponents have swiped 11 bases in 14 tries. USC pitchers have combined for 20 wild pitches and eight hit batters.
Struggling with injuries and a lot of early defeats, USC was 20-17 last year after a loss to Presbyterian. Yet they turned it around and fell one victory short of a College World Series berth.
This season, a healthy lineup and strong leadership has produced a solid club after 17 games. There are 38 to go, 30 in the country’s best baseball conference.
“The biggest thing with this team is the amount of heart we have, the belief that’s in the dugout,” Olson said. “I think that’s the reason why these comebacks have happened and why you see so much fight in the dugout.”
Baseball America Top 25
(Records through Tuesday's games)
1. Vanderbilt 14-3
2. UCLA 11-3
3. Stanford 12-3
4. Florida 14-5
5. Florida State 13-2
6. Oregon State 12-1-1
7. Mississippi State 15-1
8. North Carolina 13-4
9. Texas Tech 11-3
10. Texas Tech 12-6
11. LSU 11-5
12. Mississippi 12-4
13. Louisville 12-4
14. East Carolina 12-5
15. Georgia 14-2
16. Arkansas 13-2
17. Auburn 15-2
18. Clemson 12-3
19. Coastal Carolina 13-3-1
20. South Carolina 14-3
21. NC State 16-0
22. UC Irvine 9-4
23. Michigan 9-4
24. Duke 12-5
25. Tennessee 16-1