PREVIEW: Saturday's starter still TBA

South Carolina head baseball coach Ray Tanner has won a lot of games in his career by pushing the right buttons at the right times. Going into the final series of the regular season, Tanner has another big decision to make with an SEC Championship still very much within reaching distance.

The final regular season series of the year kicks off on Thursday night, and Gamecocks head coach Ray Tanner is "confused".

"I don't have the answers right now," Tanner said during Wednesday afternoon's press conference.

What's unknown to Tanner and the No. 2 Gamecocks (38-13, 17-9) heading into this weekend's final regular season series against No. 9 LSU (40-13, 17-10) is who will be the third starting pitcher?

Senior ace Michael Roth will start Thursday night, just like he's started every other SEC series opener the last two years. Sophomore right-hander Forrest Koumas is slated to go Game 2. After that, it's a two-horse race for the Saturday spot.

Option 1-A is junior right-hander Colby Holmes, who was one of three weekend starters all season, while healthy. But Holmes missed nearly a month of action with a muscle strain, before making his return in a midweek start against USC Upstate on Tuesday night. The plan wasn't for Holmes to pitch deep into the game, but just to shake the rust and prepare to start the final game of the regular season.

"I was hoping he would go out there and throw 15 or 18 pitches and be out of the first inning, regardless of the results," Tanner said.

Instead, Tanner was left scratching his head when Holmes allowed three hits and three earned runs, and recorded just two outs.

"It didn't happen that way. His velocity was actually okay. I think he had a couple of 91s in there, but he had a little trouble locating…" Tanner said. "[Holmes] said he felt good, he didn't have any issues there. Maybe he was just a little bit rusty from having some time off. I'm not sure. We have to try to sort it out."

Tanner is using what little time he has left to evaluate Holmes and put a better finger on if he's truly ready to start this weekend.

"If he thinks he is, and Coach Meyers thinks he is, that's going to make an impression on me. We just have to wait and see where we go from there," Tanner said.

Knowing Tanner's tendency to go with his veterans in crucial situations, it would seem if Holmes seems ready to go, then he'll start what could be an SEC Champion-deciding game Saturday.

Option 1-B is freshman left-hander Jordan Montgomery, who stepped into the game 2 starter's role admirably earlier this season when USC was searching for answers.

"Jordan Montgomery did a great job for us when we needed him. When we needed him he picked us up and had some really good outings," Tanner said.

But what makes Tanner think twice about naming Montgomery the third starter in a series that could name Carolina SEC regular season champions, other than his youth, is his recent struggles.

In his last two starts against Georgia and Arkansas, the freshman has an ERA of over 9.00. Most recently, he gave up four runs on six hits in an ugly three inning outing against the Bulldogs.

If the Gamecocks need Montgomery to come out of the bullpen on Thursday night, Tanner says he won't hesitate to use him. This would make the decision on who to name the third starter much easier.

"We'll try to win Thursday. Whatever that takes, we'll try to do. And then we'll worry about Friday when we get there, and then Saturday. So, I don't know," Tanner said.

Because of this possibility, the decision might not be made until Friday or maybe even Saturday morning.

Whoever is on the hill for the Gamecocks this weekend, pitching and defense must be sharp. The Tigers' Game 1 starter, Kevin Gausman, is the cream of the crop in not only the conference, but in the nation. He's 8-1 on the year with a sub-3 ERA and 112 strikeouts (twice as many as his Thursday opponent, Michael Roth). He's projected to be a top-4 pick in the upcoming MLB draft.

The next two starters for LSU both have sub-4 ERA's and a combined record of 11-5.

"We've got to be very efficient. We've got to play defense and understand we're probably not going to get a boatload of runs. You can't give up a lot either. Try to have a crack late in the game and an opportunity to win."

But regardless of who starts, who relieves, and who finishes for the Gamecocks this weekend, they've come a long way since the beginning of the year, and are thrilled to be in the position they are in.

After starting the season 1-5 in SEC play, the Gamecocks enter the series just a half-game out of first place in the league. League leader Kentucky travels to Mississippi State this weekend. LSU sits one game behind the Wildcats.

"I know our guys are excited to be where they are. We've made up some ground," Tanner said. "We got back in the hunt, and now we have a chance to play at home in the last weekend with a lot at stake."

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