USC suffers rare sweep at home

COLUMBIA — The numbers alone are discouraging enough for South Carolina.

In the Gamecocks’ 5-3, 11-inning loss Sunday afternoon to Arkansas, they hit 6 for 38. It was a fitting end to a series in which they were swept largely because they batted .155, which dropped their average in Southeastern Conference play to .172. In six league games, they have 14 runs and 49 strikeouts.

If this feels familiar to the Gamecocks (18-6, 2-4 SEC), it’s because exactly a year ago Sunday, they fell to 1-5 in conference play after a loss to Florida. At that point, USC was hitting .274 and had 24 runs and 48 strikeouts.

But Sunday’s offensive impotence resulted in history that the Gamecocks hoped to avoid. They hadn’t been swept at home in any three-game weekend series, SEC or otherwise, since 1999. It has now happened just five times since they joined the SEC in 1992.

As they try to rebound, they can perhaps take lessons from last season, when they closed 17-6 after the 1-5 start. They won 12 straight conference games at one point, though their final SEC batting average was just .265.

For the players who experienced that and returned this year, “it helps them know that it’s not the end of the world,” said USC’s LB Dantzler. “We’ll be able to bounce back.”

They will get a national stage to start another turnaround when Texas A&M visits Columbia on Thursday night, with ESPNU in town to televise it. That game follows a Tuesday trip to College of Charleston.

So while just the numbers were plenty grim for USC on a gray-sky Sunday when just a few hundred fans braved the 45-degree chill and wind, the way in which the Gamecocks failed at the plate was maybe even more frustrating for first-year coach Chad Holbrook.

The game was tied at 3 in the eighth. USC got a leadoff single from shortstop Joey Pankake, had runners on first and second with one out, and the bases loaded with two outs. Then Erik Payne grounded out. The score remained tied in the 10th, when Pankake led off again with a single. USC again had men on first and second with one out. Then Max Schrock popped out and Connor Bright struck out.

USC gave the Razorbacks (17-7, 4-2) too many chances, and Arkansas busted through in the 11th when a two-out line-drive single sailed just over Pankake’s glove and scored two runs. In something of a cruel tease for the fans who remained, USC got yet another leadoff single in the 11th, only to waste it on back-to-back strikeouts immediately thereafter by Sean Sullivan and Tanner English. A Pankake groundout ended the game with runners on first and second.

“We just were one hit away,” said Dantzler. “One big hit from winning and walking out of here feeling a lot better than this.”

Holbrook did not hide his frustration with his team’s offense.

“I told our guys this: Offensively, we’re not doing enough to help our pitchers out, because our pitchers are keeping us in games. I just thought we would be a little bit better at this point offensively than we’ve showed through these six games in SEC play.

“We’ve got to get better, and we will. It’s a long season ahead of us. We’ve been down this road before, and now is certainly no time to push any panic button. But we need to play better, especially offensively. We’ve got to use the whole field better. We’ve got to just be a little bit tougher with two strikes.”