Another Tough Series with South Carolina

After setting the bar high with a three-game sweep of LSU on the road, the SEC schedule doesn't get any easier for No. 1 Florida. The Gators host No. 4 South Carolina this weekend in their home opening series of conference play, closing a two-week schedule that pairs Florida with the last two College World Series champions.

"This has got a little more to it when you're playing the defending national champs," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We've got a lot to prove this weekend. It's only the second of ten weekends in this league, but I think both teams will probably find out a lot about each other after this weekend."

The Gamecocks haven't fallen off much this season, despite losing their top two starting pitchers from last season in Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson. Instead, returning players have stepped up to give them a boost.

It starts on Friday night with South Carolina left-hander Michael Roth (4-1, 1.34). He was a left-handed specialist out of the Gamecocks' bullpen last season, throwing only two innings in the series against the Gators to end conference play last year. When South Carolina was on its way to a national championship at the College World Series, Roth led the way.

South Carolina needed to beat Clemson twice to advance to the final series, and Michael Roth threw a complete game to beat them the first time. He allowed only three hits and one run while striking out four hitters. Dyson led them to another win, and with a 1-0 lead over UCLA in the three-game championship series, Roth got the ball again. This team, he won the Gamecocks a ring. He allowed one run in five innings to UCLA and the Gamecocks' bullpen pieced the game together to earn the school its first baseball national championship.

Roth has stayed hot this season. In 33.2 innings this season, the left-hander has allowed 27 hits and five earned runs while recording 38 strikeouts. He has also walked nine hitters.

"He throws strikes, and he's got that low angle (arm slot) versus left-handed hitters that you don't see very often," O'Sullivan said. "He can pitch to both sides of the plate. It'll be a great challenge for us. He's tough, and he's confident in himself."

Florida left-hander Brian Johnson (4-0, 1.53) will get the ball on Friday night for the Gators. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.

South Carolina will use left-hander Steven Neff (2-0, 2.49) on Saturday. The junior hasn't been as consistent as Roth this season, but he is still putting together a solid season. In 21.2 innings this season, Neff has allowed 17 hits, six earned runs and six walks. He has also recorded 18 strikeouts.

With key hitters like Nolan Fontana, Preston Tucker and Brian Johnson taking their swings from the left side of the plate, it could be a tough matchup for the Gators in the first two games, but the Florida head coach likes his team's approach against southpaws.

"We've handled left-handed pitching okay so far," O'Sullivan said. "I think we're hitting over .350 against left-handed pitchers, but this is a different type of lefty we'll see.

Reigning SEC Pitcher of the week Hudson Randall (3-0, 0.85) will take the ball for the Gators on Saturday. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.

The Sunday starter for South Carolina hasn't been named yet, but the Gators will start freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson (3-0, 2.52). First pitch is set for 1 p.m.

If the Florida bats can get into South Carolina's bullpen, that doesn't secure an easier path. The Gamecocks have dependable arms in the backend that lead to All-American closer Matt Price, who has already saved five games this season.

Right-handed side-armers John Taylor (1-0, 0.55) and Jose Mata (1-0, 2.45) have thrown a combined 23.2 innings, allowing only three earned runs and 13 hits. The duo has recorded 25 strikeouts.

"They've got a couple of those side arm guys who have eaten up a lot of innings for them," O'Sullivan said. "They've got some lefties in the pen where they can mix and match through the game."

The South Carolina offense combined for 41 runs in midweek games with College of Charleston and Rhode Island after scoring 12 runs in three games against Georgia last weekend. The offense is coming to Gainesville with plenty of confidence off the heels of two easy midweek wins.

The offense is led by All-American center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. He brings in a .300 average with a team-leading five home runs and 18 RBIs.

"He's a really good hitter," O'Sullivan said. "Bradley is a great player, and one of the best hitters in the country, but he's got a great supporting cast around him as well."

It's not just Bradley, Jr. Senior third baseman Adrian Morales leads the team with a .417 batting average, adding two home runs and 14 RBIs. Sophomore first baseman Christian Walker is hitting .347 with four home runs and 18 RBIs.

"There are other guys in that lineup, too," O'Sullivan said about the bats around Bradley, Jr. "Christian Walker is coming off a really good freshman year. They've got a lot of experience there at third base with Morales who has been on a tear lately."

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