COLUMBIA — The regular season has, in some ways, become an afterthought for those who follow South Carolina baseball. It seems a foregone conclusion that the Gamecocks will play in the NCAA tournament, which they last missed in 1999, and that they will make a strong push for the College World Series, which they reached in five of the past 10 seasons.
And while the tournament doesn’t begin until June 1, USC’s current eight-game Southeastern Conference winning streak has put the Gamecocks in auspicious position for the postseason — at least for the time being.
On Tuesday, The NCAA released its latest Ratings Percentage Index, one of the factors used to determine which eight teams receive national seeds in the tournament — a distinction that lets a team host a Regional and Super Regional, if it advances that far. Last weekend’s sweep at Auburn — USC’s second straight sweep — bumped the Gamecocks from No. 12 to 7 in the RPI.
With their 1-5 SEC start a distant memory, the Gamecocks (30-11, 11-7) have a good chance to extend their SEC winning streak to 11 games this weekend when they host Alabama, starting tonight.
The Crimson Tide (17-25, 6-12) has the SEC’s worst overall and league records.
USC coach Ray Tanner said he doesn’t check the RPI or NCAA tournament projections. He prefers to operate under this guarded philosophy: “Just when you feel good about yourself, that’s when you get smacked,” he said.
Of course, receiving a national seed guarantees nothing for the tournament. In the past 12 tournaments, 60 percent of national seeds made the College World Series (58 of 96). The Gamecocks won the World Series as a No. 4 overall seed last season, but didn’t get a national seed when they won it in 2010. They were the No. 1 seed in 2000 and lost in a Super Regional.
Senior right fielder Adam Matthews said he doesn’t seek out the latest RPI, but does glance at it when he notices it on Twitter. Right now, he likes what he sees.
“That’s the goal — you want to play here, you want to play in front of our fans and in front of an environment that we’re used to and a field that we’re used to,” he said.
In terms of something more intangible than rising RPI numbers, senior No. 1 starting pitcher Michael Roth is beginning to notice a greater level of toughness from his team.
Earlier this season, he wasn’t shy about saying he saw too little of that.
“We’ve grown up a little bit,” he said. “The important part is that we’ve gotten better every game. We’ve been tougher. We’ve competed a little bit better.”
While Matthews likes that, and the eight-game SEC winning streak and RPI ascension that has resulted, he thinks there is still potential for more.
“It’s a good feeling, but the best feeling about it is we haven’t played even up to how we think we’re capable of playing,” he said.
The Gamecocks also won eight straight league games last season and tonight will go for their first nine-game SEC winning streak since the final three regular season series of 2003, when they surged to a 19-11 league record and advanced to the College World Series. The last time USC won more than nine straight in the SEC: 2000, when it won 17 straight and finished 25-5.
But Tanner is well aware that history means nothing, and he thinks that with four SEC series remaining, it’s far too early to put much stock in things like RPI and a potential national seed.
“A lot of things can change,” he said. “Would I like to be where we are today at the end? Absolutely. But you’re a long way from that. There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”
USC likely won’t have pitcher Colby Holmes for his regular start on Saturday, Tanner said during his radio call-in show Wednesday night. Tanner said Holmes suffered a “freak” muscle strain in his right (throwing) arm while stretching at Wednesday’s practice. The extent of the injury is unclear, Tanner said. Holmes is 6-0 in 10 starts with a 3.29 earned-run average.
Tanner said he and pitching coach Jerry Meyers will choose a replacement Friday night. Candidates include midweek starters Nolan Belcher and Adam Westmoreland, because the Gamecocks didn’t play a midweek game this week. Tanner said it was “not out of the question” that he could have Matt Price close tonight’s series opener and start Saturday. Price started five games this season before returning to the closer role, which he occupied last season.