Gamecocks having fun

South Carolina has had a lot of fun the last five weeks. After beginning the season in the basement of the SEC East, the Gamecocks have rebounded and quickly worked its way back to the top. Carolina begins this week tied atop the SEC standings with just three weeks left in the season.

Two weeks into the season, the South Carolina baseball team sat dead last in the SEC East at 1-5 after being swept by Kentucky and losing two of three at home to Florida. The freshmen were struggling and the bullpen wasn't getting the job done – blowing a save in the first game at Kentucky and giving up three runs in a 6-3 loss in game three.

If it were football, Carolina would be done. If it were basketball, the Gamecocks' season would have been on life support. Baseball is a marathon. It isn't over until it's over.

Five weeks later Carolina has dug its way out of the hole it was in. After picking up its third series sweep in a row over Alabama, the Gamecocks are back.

"We are playing a little more confident and our freshmen have gotten some innings and games under their belt," head coach Ray Tanner said after Saturday's series finale against the Tide. "I think they are more relaxed. All those things I believe have contributed to being a little more consistent."

Not only have the freshmen stepped up, the bullpen is getting the job done as well. Matt Price is back in his familiar role as closer with five saves in ten appearances out of the bullpen, and earned his first save in the win over Florida in his first appearance out of the pen. Tyler Webb has been solid in the set-up role with a 1.71 ERA in a team-high 24 appearances.

"I think that the thing we have talked about before is consistency on the mound. Those guys down there, our starters and our bullpen and the job Coach Meyers has done on that staff, has been really impressive. They put us in a position to win a lot of games. We lost some close game because we just weren't able to score enough runs. Lately we have been able to score enough runs to support our pitching staff."

With Price back in the pen, somebody had to step up in the weekend rotation. Tanner made what seemed like a curious decision at the time when he decided to start true freshman Jordan Montgomery against Tennessee. After giving up a leadoff triple to Will Maddox and scoring on a ground ball the next play, Montgomery threw eight innings, allowing just two more hits and only gave up the one run. Montgomery picked up his first win in the weekend rotation the following week against Mississippi State when he pitched 6.1 innings and gave up just one run. He made his first road appearance the following week and held a strong Auburn offense to just two runs in 5.1 innings to move to 4-0 on the year. He gave up a season-high six earned runs against Alabama, but the Gamecocks were able to rally back with a walk-off win. Despite the bad outing, Montgomery still sports an impressive 3.47 ERA and a 4-0 record.

"I think Jordan has a chance, as he gets a little bit older, to throw a little bit harder," Tanner said earlier in the season. "At times he can get up to 87-88 mph and maybe he will have a little more life down the road. He has done a nice job for us. I'm really proud of what he has been able to do, and he has put us in a position to win games."

As the season closes, Tanner may have to find another weekend starter after Colby Holmes suffered an injury last week. Tanner took a multiple pitcher approach to the series finale against Alabama, throwing Patrick Sullivan for four innings, Nolan Belcher – who earned the win – for 3.1, and Hunter Privette threw the final 1.3 innings.

"Colby Holmes feels much better, but it's still only been a few day so we will have to evaluate him has we go," Tanner said.

The Gamecocks are now 33-11 on the season and 14-7 in conference play. They have won 13 of 15 after the 1-5 start to conference play and have won the last 11 conference games. They are now tied with Kentucky and LSU – who they will face to end the season – for first place overall in the conference.

"We knew we had players coming into the year that would be big for us. We knew we needed guys to step up. LB Dantzler kind of struggled early in the year but he is starting to hit the ball hard like he did in the fall and in the preseason. Patrick Sullivan did a great job again stepping in for Colby Holmes. I just can't say enough about that."

Ranked fifth in the latest Baseball America, not only do the Gamecocks find themselves in good positioning to host an NCAA Regional, but also find themselves in the running for more than that

The road gets much more difficult to finish the season. Following a mid-week game against Davidson Wednesday night, Carolina travels to Baum Stadium in Fayetteville to take on 18th-ranked Arkansas in a key series that begins Friday. Carolina returns home for a May 9th game with Furman before hitting the road again for a series in Athens against the Georgia Bulldogs. USC-Upstate will close out the mid-week schedule on May 15th, and the Gamecocks close the season out with what should be a highly anticipated match-up with fourth-ranked LSU in Columbia.

"We are playing well," Christian Walker said following the 9-1 win over Alabama Saturday." "We feel good, and we are playing loose. We are having fun. That's another thing the coaches have been stressing is just to have a good time. We've been playing this game our whole lives and we are here for a reason. There's no point in being stressed out and playing up tight. We just need to play loose and let the game come to us. It's a good feeling."

It's easy to play loose and have fun when you win.

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