Gamecocks looking the part of an elite team

March 5, 2012 

South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner yells out instructions during the Gamecocks game against Clemson at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, SC, Friday, March 2, 2012.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

South Carolina lost a baseball game Sunday against Clemson.

Normally, losing a single baseball game wouldn’t exactly qualify as big news. But the Gamecocks had not lost a game since May 27, 2011, when Georgia knocked them out of the SEC tournament.

Their ensuing 19 wins included 10 games played in the NCAA tournament, which resulted in a second straight national championship, and the first nine regular-season games this year.

Not a bad run.

USC coach Ray Tanner joked after Sunday’s 6-5 to rival Clemson that he had not expected to go undefeated this season.

Tanner, however, could afford to smile. He entered the season having lost several key veterans and having to replace most with true freshmen. Until Sunday’s loss, that group of newcomers had already begun to show they were ready to help keep the wins coming in Tanner’s powerhouse program.

The Gamecocks enter the final full week of non-conference play ranked No. 3 in Baseball America’s poll — and looking every bit the part. They beat the Tigers 3-2 in 11 innings Friday with strong pitching, timely hitting and a terrific game-saving defensive play by Evan Marzilli. They pounded the Tigers on Saturday, 9-6. And they held a 5-3 lead late in Sunday’s game before letting it slip away.

Tanner said he is feeling better about his team than he did at the start of the season, although there still are areas to be addressed.

“We’ve got to shore it up on defense a little bit,” he said. “We pitched pretty well except for (Sunday).”

The Gamecocks made eight errors in the three-game series — four by freshman shortstop Joey Pankake — and the Tigers got 10 of their 12 hits and all six runs Sunday off starter Colby Holmes and closer Forrest Koumas.

But when your team is third-ranked and 9-1, your problems aren’t insurmountable. About 300 teams in the nation would love to have those kinds of problems. In fact, Tanner’s biggest problem might be that he has too much depth, and that he can’t find enough at-bats and innings for some players and pitchers.

Junior Chase Vergason settled in at second base against Clemson, although backup Connor Bright had a big RBI single Friday after entering the game in extra innings. And senior outfielder Adam Matthews snapped out of a slump with a big series. Yet a mix of players continue to battle for the designated hitter spot, where Sean Sullivan, Kyle Martin and T.J. Costen each got a start against Clemson. Sullivan drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of Friday’s win, and Martin produced a pair of hits and a walk Saturday.

Tanner would like to settle into a regular lineup, though.

“We can’t play them all,” he said. “We’ve got to find a combination that’s best.”

Finding the right combination extends to the pitching staff. Michael Roth had a strong start, but Holmes and Matt Price were not as stellar. Koumas pitched well in relief Friday but not so well Sunday.

Freshman right-hander Evan Beal was outstanding out of the bullpen Saturday, while veterans Tyler Webb, Ethan Carter and Nolan Belcher are proving to be effective in relief. Solid arms such as juniors Adam Westmoreland and Patrick Sullivan and freshman Joel Seddon have barely thrown in the first 10 games.

There are 46 regular-season games — 30 in the SEC — remaining, which means there’s plenty of time for players to step up. As last season showed, it’s impossible to predict when injuries might have a significant impact on who will get the opportunity to contribute.

Tanner has few complaints about his team, even with Christian Walker getting two hits and Marzilli one all weekend. And great promise is evident in players such as freshman catcher Grayson Greiner, who hit the first two homers of his USC career Sunday.

“It’s very, very early. We did some things well. We’ve got a chance to be a pretty good club, but we’ve still got to grow a lot,” Tanner said. “We didn’t get a tremendous amount of production this three-game set from some of our older guys, and we were still able to win twice. Some of the new guys came up big. It’s a work in progress. As I’ve said many times, you’ve still got to win games as you go. You’ve got to figure it out and win.”

But by winning an SEC-like series against its top rival in front of three big crowds, Tanner said he believes the experience will be invaluable when the intensity of league play begins.

“It helps both clubs going into our leagues to go through this for a weekend,” he added. “You get pressed a little bit. You get some pressure on you and you have to make some big plays. Hopefully, we’ll both be better for it going forward.”

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