Expectations are high for surging Gamecocks

It was a memorable weekend for the 10-1 South Carolina baseball team and its fans, as the Yardcocks swept a two game series with arch-rival and then #2 ranked Clemson in dramatic fashion. The impact of the early season wins may hold even greater impact as the team pursues its goals for this season: to return to the College World Series and perhaps finally win the national championship.

USC will play 30 games this season against 2006 NCAA Tournament teams. Sports are full of well-used clichés, some true and some not so true. One of the truer ones applied this past week to Ray Tanner's club: "You have to beat the best to be the best." This past weekend, they did just that, first taking on Clemson on their home field and simply decimating the Tigers with a 12-0 shut out. It was the first time the Gamecocks had shut out the Tigers on their home field since 1974. Then they returned to the friendly confines of Sarge Frye Field, and clawed back to win 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth after Clemson had taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the 8th.

They have a lot more opportunities to prove they can beat the best teams in the land, but the nation has taken notice of the Gamecocks' success so far this season, as South Carolina climbed to the No. 2 spot in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and USA TODAY/ESPN Top 25 Coaches' Poll, and moved up to No. 3 in the Baseball America Top 25 while remaining No. 4 in the nation in the Collegiate Baseball Top 30.

Trent Kline, who hit the game winning RBI on Sunday said, "It's huge. Anytime you beat Clemson it's a big win, no matter how you do it. I've been out before and people have been telling me, 'If you beat Clemson, our season is complete.'"

USC Head Coach Ray Tanner made it clear that as satisfying as the wins over Clemson were, he was looking beyond this weekend: "If you're going to be a real good club at the end of the year, you're going to have win some games late and come from behind," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "Right now, I'm pleased with our approach."

It takes a well-balanced team to make it to the College World Series, and the Gamecocks thus far this season are showing they can be dominant on both sides of the ball.

After the USC bats could not be silenced on Saturday, they produced just enough at the key time on Sunday to make a victory happen. The team is batting at a .309 clip with 19 homers in 11 games played, including three in Saturday's win, all multi-run shots.

The most valuable players of the weekend for the Gamecocks, though, were clearly the pitchers. Saturday's starting pitcher, Harris Honeycutt, struck out seven batters in the win, took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and allowed just one Clemson player to reach third base. He improved his career record to 12-0 with the Gamecocks, has won all four starts this season and lowered his season ERA to 1.11. His performance earned the junior the SEC Pitcher of the Week award. Tanner said of his steady right-hander, "The storyline was really how well Honeycutt pitched. He was pretty impressive. He was really sharp, made some great pitches when he needed to." Clemson coach Jack Leggett also gave Honeycutt credit: "After South Carolina got the lead in the first, Honeycutt smelled a victory and seized the moment," Leggett said. "He threw several pitches for strikes and looked outstanding."

Sophomore Mike Cisco pitched effectively in Sunday's win over the Tigers. The sophomore right-hander limited Clemson to one run on five hits while working into the seventh inning. While not earning the win on Sunday, he is 1-0 on the year with a 3.20 ERA and has pitched a team high 25.1 innings with 20 strikeouts and just three walks allowed. "I'm always hoping that (Cisco) will be that good, but he was a little bit extra today," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "I knew they were going to keep coming and they did. This was just a tremendous college baseball game."

The bullpen also played a key role during both games to preserve the wins. The Gamecock pitching staff has been very effective in the first 11 games this season with the staff posting a team ERA of 2.16 in 100 innings of work … The staff has 100 strikeouts to just 26 walks and allowed just 75 hits and opponents only batting .208 on the year.

Sophomore left-hander Will Atwood pitched a scoreless ninth inning and picked up his first win of the year in Sunday's 3-2 win over Clemson. Atwood in four appearances has a 0.93 ERA and just eight hits allowed with no walks and eight.

South Carolina has been closer in baseball to winning a national championship than any other major sport, twice playing in the championship game only to fall short. Still, USC has been one of the best teams in college baseball this century, to the point where fans have been disappointed after the team's failure to make it to the College World Series the last two years. They had made the storied trip to Omaha three straight times prior to that. They have appeared in all seven NCAA regionals so far this century, made six out of seven Super Regionals, won two SEC championships as well as winning the SEC tournament championship title in 2004.

So is this the season USC finally takes the crown as college baseball's best team? Stay tuned.

The Gamecocks return to action on Tuesday evening vs. the College of Charleston (11-1) with the first pitch set for 6 pm and the game played at Joe Riley Park. Right-hander Jay Brown will start on the mound for USC, while lefty Jeff Beliveau will start for the College of Charleston. GamecockAnthem will be on hand to cover the Carolina march to greatness.

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