USC tries to salvage season, beginning on national stage

USC will be without top starting pitcher Wil Crowe (center) as it tries to turn its season around beginning this weekend against No. 5 Vanderbilt. (File/Paul Zoeller/Staff)

The stage is set for one of the highest-profile conference weekends South Carolina baseball has seen in some time. SEC Network will broadcast from the first-base concourse at Carolina Stadium, with Paul Finebaum’s show and “SEC Now” originating on-site. And defending national champion Vanderbilt comes to town for three nationally televised games between two programs which were both ranked highly in the preseason.

Only one of them is still there. The Commodores may have slipped from the No. 1 spot due to a three-game skid, but that’s nothing like the plummet suffered by the Gamecocks, who are out of the national rankings and facing the prospect of missing out on the NCAA Tournament. After being routed in three games at Florida last weekend, and then dropping an extra-inning decision to Presbyterian, what was supposed to be a clash of recent national champions has turned into a salvage operation by a USC squad trying to save its season.

“It’s not where we want to be. It’s not a situation we want to go through. But I’m also a big enough boy and understand baseball enough to know that it happens from time to time. Obviously, we’re not immune to it now. We’ve been immune to it for a long time,” South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook said Wednesday.

“All I know is to keep working hard, keep a positive attitude ... and hopefully it will turn around. That’s all you can do. And that’s all I can do. We’re in a situation that we’re not used to and were not accustomed to. But we’ll be back. We’ll be back. I hope it’s sooner rather than later, but we’ll be fine.”

USC (23-15, 6-9 SEC) hasn’t won an SEC series since sweeping Kentucky the first weekend of conference play, and enters Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. opener against No. 5 Vanderbilt (28-10, 11-4) on a skid extended to four games by Wednesday’s 7-4 loss to the Blue Hose. That came after the Gamecocks announced top starter Wil Crowe has a torn ligament in his throwing elbow, and will miss both the rest of this season and all of the 2016 campaign recovering from impending Tommy John surgery.

Safe to say, the rain at Carolina Stadium on Wednesday wasn’t solely responsible for the gloomy atmosphere. Holbrook plans to use reliever Vince Fiori as a starter in Thursday’s opener against the Commodores, following with Jack Wynkoop in Friday’s 7 p.m. contest. Fiori was a starter last summer in the Cape Cod League, and the junior lefthander has been USC’s best reliever with a 3-0 record and a 2.45 ERA.

“He’s been chomping at the bit to get a start,” Holbrook said, “and the situation were in, we think he’s the best option to give the ball to.”

Wynkoop will move into the leadoff role beginning next week, and Holbrook said he won’t be hesitant to use as many pitchers as it takes any time USC has a chance to win. This is all new territory for South Carolina, which entered the season with two proven weekend starters and a No. 13 national ranking, but whose RPI has fallen to 69th and was not included in a projected NCAA Tournament field released Wednesday by the website D1baseball.com.

The last time USC missed the NCAA Tournament? That was 1999, in former coach Ray Tanner’s third season, and well before six College World Series trips and two national championships.

“It’s not a given that we’re in the NCAA Tournament every year,” Holbrook said. “If we’re not in the NCAA Tournament this year, this program’s going to be OK. And our players are going to be OK. And we’ll work our butts off to make sure that never happens again. But we’re just playing for tomorrow ... The last thing that’s on my mind or in my thoughts is what’s going to go on in May or June. I’m worried about the psyche of my team today.”

Optimistic by nature, Holbrook said he woke up from his “30-minute sleep” Thursday after the Presbyterian loss convinced his team is capable of playing its best baseball in its final 18 games. And as for Finebaum, SEC Network, and the national spotlight shining on South Carolina at what would seem a less-than-flattering moment? No better time to turn it around, he believes.

“Yeah, it stinks with where we are right now,” he said, “but it’s still great to play in this venue, on this stage, on national TV against a great program. A lot of times that tends to bring out the best in you. I’m hopeful that’s what will happen this weekend.”