Gamecock Invasion

South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner said he wishes Scott Bittle was playing professional baseball right now for a couple of reasons.

"I'm a huge Yankees fan, and I'm disappointed he's not wearing the pinstripes and that he is still playing for the Ole Miss Rebels," said Tanner, whose Gamecock ballclub is in Oxford for three games, beginning tonight. "He's probably created as much confusion among the SEC (hitters) as any pitcher in a long time. Players have a hard time hitting him, much less mounting any rally."

Tanner won't have to worry about Bittle (Sunday, 1:30) for a couple of days. The Rebels will start Drew Pomeranz tonight (6:30) and Phillip Irwin Saturday (4:00) as the "normal" rotation is back in place.

This is the same rotation the Rebels had at LSU two weeks ago. Last week it was a bit different with Irwin on Friday and Pomeranz Saturday due to Pomeranz's stomach ailment.

Tanner said it isn't all about the pitching that's made Ole Miss (24-8, 8-4) such a force so far in the SEC race.

"My profession is baseball and it's also my hobby," he said. "I pay attention to what's going on around us in the league and throughout the country. So I've been following Ole Miss from the beginning. They've been able to win some games with the big hit or a great pitching performance or make a play. They're really good in all facets. Their pitching up front has been extremely dominant. They've had clutch performers (offensively). They've been able to do things they needed to do to win at the right time. We'll have to put together a great weekend to go into Oxford and win this series. But we're excited about going down and playing Coach (Mike) Bianco's club."

The Gamecocks don't sport the stellar record they normally do, especially in SEC play. But some key losses off last year's team have made them regroup just a bit. At 21-11 and 5-7, there's still time for a Carolina run.

One of the keys is junior first baseman Nick Ebert, a junior college transfer.

Ebert tallied his first multi-homer game of his career at Carolina and the third by a Gamecock player this season in the 9-1 win over Arkansas last weekend. Ebert is second on the team with a .348 average (31-for-89) and has 11 HR and 33 RBI. He has a team-high 10 multi-RBI games. His slugging percentage of .798 is third best in the SEC with his on-base percentage of .504 fourth best in the conference. He has also walked a team-high 27 times, tied for third highest in the conference. He also owns a .350 average (14-for-40) in SEC games.

"Nick Ebert was not in the starting lineup on opening day," Tanner said. "He didn't have a great fall or spring, but he showed much maturity and came to work every day. He made a little bit of contact the last couple of scrimmages before the season and now he's cashing in. I'm delighted in where he is and with his maturity."

Tanner said Ebert has become one of the key players for USC this season. He also mentioned Ebert's maturity through a recent apartment fire in which the player lost all his belongings.

"We've had to throw him into the middle of the lineup, and he's doing a good job producing for us," Tanner said. "We recruited him because of his offensive prowess, and that wasn't happening (early). But he's hung in there and he's a terrific young man, and he's battled through some tough times with the fire and all. It's nice to be able to depend on a guy like that. He gives us as quality an at bat as anybody on our club."

Bianco said his team continues to find ways to win.

"We had a pretty good midweek series, beating UNO twice," he said. "The first game Tuesday night we didn't play as well but won (5-4), and Wednesday night played one of our cleanest games of the year (winning 7-0). We've been able to find a way to win. Some we've played well in and some we haven't. I'm proud and excited that we've figured out how to win some games we haven't played our best and to also win some close games. But the finish line is far away and it doesn't get any easier with a very good South Carolina ballclub coming in."

Bianco said his players are beginning to see a clearer picture of who they are, what their roles are, and what they can become.

"Maybe that it's taken to midpoint of season is because it's been harder to define roles throughout the lineup, in the rotation, and in the bullpen," he said. "It's been more difficult for us coaches, trying to play the best nine out there. And it can change from week to week. The last few weeks, guys have answered, the bullpen has stepped up, and we've gotten some clutch hits. We've gotten runners in scoring position home, and defensively we've gotten better. So it's been a combination of a lot of different things."

The weekend pitching rotation is scheduled to be:

*** Friday

SC - Sam Dyson (RHP, So.) - 4-2, 4.85 ERA, 42.2 IP, 20 BB, 40 K

UM - Drew Pomeranz (LHP, So.) - 3-0, 3.09 ERA, 32.0 IP, 16 BB, 32 K

*** Saturday

SC - Nolan Belcher (LHP, Fr.) - 1-1, 4.50 ERA, 32.0 IP, 18 BB, 31 K

UM - Phillip Irwin (RHP, Jr.) - 5-1, 2.93 ERA, 43.0 IP, 6 BB, 31 K

*** Sunday

SC - Blake Cooper (RHP, Jr.) - 4-2, 4.42 ERA, 38.2 IP, 13 BB, 31 K

UM - Scott Bittle (RHP, Sr.) - 2-2, 2.03 ERA, 26.2 IP, 13 BB, 42 K


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