Commentary: Big month ahead

March was a difficult month for South Carolina in conference play. The Gamecocks find themselves in an unfamiliar place; at the bottom looking up. April provides an opportunity for Carolina to turn their fortunes around and make a late push heading into tournament play.

We're at the halfway point.

Believe it or not, the college baseball season is halfway over. South Carolina sits at 20-8 at the halfway mark and 3-6 in conference play. Entering this week the Gamecocks are ranked eleventh by Baseball America and are entering a pivotal stretch in conference play. Carolina knew they faced a difficult start to conference play with road series at Kentucky and Vanderbilt sandwiched around a home series against Florida. Though not many expected Kentucky to be as good as they have been or Vanderbilt struggling as they have been, a 3-6 start to conference play was not far-fetched.

If Carolina hopes to rise towards the top of the SEC and remain in contention for a host site in the NCAA Tournament, the next month of the season is extremely important. The next four SEC opponents are Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn, and Alabama, three of which are in Columbia.

Under first-year coach Dave Serrano, Tennessee, 18-10 (5-4 SEC), is coming off a series sweep over hapless Alabama after losing two of three to Georgia and Kentucky. This weekend will mark the first time the Volunteers have ventured away from Knoxville since their first conference series against Georgia, after ten straight at home. South Carolina swept the Volunteers the last time the two teams met in Columbia.

Following the match-up with Tennessee, Carolina will host 18-11 Mississippi State. Like the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs enter this weekend with a 3-6 conference record after a tough stretch to begin conference play. The Bulldogs lost two of three to LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn and will host Vanderbilt this weekend. The Gamecocks took two of three from Mississippi State each of the last two years.

After facing Mississippi State, Carolina will face a difficult challenge when it travels to Auburn, 17-11 on the season. Auburn sits in a tie with LSU for first in the SEC West at 6-3 after taking two of three from Ole Miss, LSU, and Mississippi State. In its wins, the Tigers have put up a lot of offensive numbers so the Gamecock pitching staff will have to pitch well.

Carolina closes the stretch with a home series against the only SEC team with a losing record, 9-19 Alabama. The Crimson Tide were swept by Arkansas and Tennessee, and also lost two of three to Ole Miss to sit at a league-worst 1-8. In games the Alabama pitching staff has pitched well, the offense has struggled and vice versa.

During this pivotal stretch the Gamecocks have some difficult midweek games it must maneuver its way through. Carolina travels to the College of Charleston Wednesday to face former assistant Monte Lee and the Cougars. Two weeks later the Cougars return the favor with a trip to Columbia. Carolina will also face The Citadel and Francis Marion next week.

The goal for this stretch should be to win each series and potentially sweep one of the four, likely Alabama, as well as winning at least three of the four midweek games. Should Carolina do that, they will finish the stretch with a winning conference record and surpassing 30 wins in the process.

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