Commentary: Uneven play hampers Gamecocks

nwhite@thestate.comMay 6, 2013 

Following South Carolina’s play in the SEC this season has resembled an episode of “Let’s Make A Deal.” Fans never know what they’re going to get at the start of a weekend series behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2 or Door No. 3.

They may win a series sweep or a series victory, but they also may go home after seeing their team swept. This all-or-nothing approach has played out over the past eight weekends.

The Gamecocks (33-14), who remain No. 15 in the Baseball America poll, enter the final two regular-season series with a conference mark of 13-10, fourth-best in the league.

Against Missouri, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Kentucky and No. 3 LSU, all series victories, the Gamecocks have gone 13-2. But they’ve posted a 0-8 record in series sweeps at the hands of No. 11 Arkansas, Florida and No. 2 Vanderbilt.

That leaves two series, one at home against a struggling Georgia team and one on the road at No. 21 Mississippi State, before the SEC tournament begins. Those six games likely will tell folks a lot about where this season is headed before the start of the NCAA tournament.

The past three seasons ended in the final games of the College World Series in Omaha, but it’s hard to say that will be the case again. The 2013 Gamecocks have lacked the consistency of those teams.

They looked great winning the LSU series in Baton Rouge and a non-conference series victory over No. 19 Clemson earlier in the season. But against Arkansas and Vanderbilt, they looked like they lacked the requisite firepower and confidence needed to beat teams with great pitching.

Everybody knew this season would be a transitional year. All of the everyday players from the 2010 and 2011 national championships are gone, and a handful of pitchers remain from those two squads.

Holbrook likes how this team has worked to forge that personality and the toughness necessary to be competitive in the nation’s top conference. Each of USC’s previous 13 teams finished .500 or above in the SEC on the way to an NCAA tournament bid, and that’s what he wants his team to do.

“There’s been many a team that’s played deep into the NCAA tournament that had a .500 SEC record. I hope we finish higher than .500. I think we will if we play well,” Holbrook said. “Having a .500 record against some of these teams doesn’t mean you can’t play in the College World Series. We want to get in the NCAA tournament and play our best baseball at that time. That’s what our goal is each and every year.”

The Gamecocks, who need two more conference wins to finish over .500 in the league, have seen new leaders emerge. Senior first baseman LB Dantzler has proven to be a true force in the middle of the lineup, and senior left-handed pitchers Nolan Belcher, Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb have stepped up.

Despite a string of injuries, this team has battled and gotten into a position to make some postseason noise. But it will have to resemble the team that beat LSU and not the team that vanished against Florida.

Holbrook took away one positive from last weekend’s losses to Vanderbilt. He didn’t use Westmoreland or Webb because the Gamecocks weren’t in a position to use them, so he ran out different relievers and liked what he saw. Right-handers Colby Holmes, Patrick Sullivan and Evan Beal and left-hander Vince Fiori all had solid outings, important given the recent struggles of Holmes and Beal.

“That was encouraging,” Holbrook said. “We’re going to put them back out there.”

And the players remain encouraged as the season winds down.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Dantzler said. “We’ve held our own. Hopefully, when we get to the tournament, we can play some good baseball, too.”

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