Weekend Preview: Carolina vs. Georgia

The South Carolina Gamecocks are set to close out the regular season with a three game series against the Georgia Bulldogs. These could be the final games at Sarge Frye Field if the Gamecocks don't get to host a Regional, and even determine if USC gets one of the eight national seeds. With that in mind, the upcoming series is even more important than normal.

If you look at their conference standings, the Bulldogs on the surface look like the worst team in the SEC. In this case, looks may be a bit deceiving. Their latest stretch of games have included victories over #13 Mississippi State, #24 Georgia Tech, #1 Vanderbilt and #9 Arkansas. Though 22-31 and 10-17 in SEC play, the brunt of the losses rests mainly in the first half of the year. Swept by #15 Oregon State, Southern Cal, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson, the Bulldogs have achieved a minor miracle in turning their season around the way they have.

With only one everyday player who's hit double digit home runs, and a pitching staff that has come up short on most pre-season expectations, the Dawgs are a different team than the one that a year ago eliminated the Gamecocks on their way to Omaha.

With their top three starters from last year gone and a 50% turnover rate on the offense, these Bulldogs aren't close to the 2006 installment. It has taken some time to gel, but they seem to finally be putting things together as the season draws to an end.

"They're a good team that won three out of their last four," said South Carolina Head Coach Ray Tanner. "They played one of the most difficult (non-conference) schedules in the country and didn't play as well as they wanted to. Then they had to play in the SEC."

Much of their recent good fortune comes from the arms of their sophomore trio set to take the hill in the upcoming series. Sophomore righty Stephen Dodson has suffered some tough losses on the season. With a record of 4-5, it'd be hard to believe his ERA is 2.76. Though his strike out total is low, his command is awesome. With two complete games under his belt, he's thrown two more complete games then the entire Gamecock staff. Also impressive is his walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched (WHIP) ratio of 1.08 – a phenomenal number for an SEC pitcher.

He'll be faced by another sophomore righty, Mike Cisco, who is set to return to USC's starting SEC rotation after being replaced by Arik Hempy. Cisco has had an oscillating season, spectacular some nights and awful the next. He looks to be in one of his better sequences of late.

"Cisco is a guy that's rested. He's pitched pretty well the last two or three times out. We didn't want to move Hempy up. We wanted to get him plenty of rest," said Tanner, "Of course there will be an odd man out. (Blake) Cooper has been able to win his games and (Harris) Honeycutt has been really good for us, especially in the first half of the year. We'll go Cisco, Hempy and either Honeycutt or Cooper. We'll make a decision based on how the weekend goes."

Adding to the pitching re-organization, Tanner said, "Cisco is rested and he's been in this situation before where there is a lot on the line so I think he's the right guy for the Thursday game."

Mike Cisco says, "No pressure. We stay relaxed and we got momentum from last weekend. We're going to play our game – play relaxed. If we play to the best of our ability it should be a success."

"I'm ready to pitch when they call on me. I've been striving to get back into the weekend rotation no matter what day." he continued.

It's a huge situation with a lot on the line in regards to hosting NCAA Regional play. "Are we gonna' host? Can we be a National seed? I don't know," said Tanner, "It comes down to how many games you win against Georgia and how you do in the SEC tournament. Could we be a national seed? Could we be a regional host? Sure, just gotta win some games."

Coach Tanner believes that two wins against Georgia should lock up a host position, but he refuses to look ahead due to the SEC tournament right after the Georgia series.

Like their pitching staff, the Georgia offense Cisco will be facing is coming up short in almost all expectations. Light hitting Jonathan Wyatt, who hit .360 a year ago, is hitting .321 this season. Gordon Beckham is their most dangerous hitter with a .296 average, 12 HR, 46 RBI and six steals. Of the starters on offense, only Wyatt and Matt Olson (.318) are hitting above .300. Their power hitters are well below average, with 40 home runs on the season, paling in comparison to the Yardcocks 98 – 1st in the nation. They've scored 267 runs to date compared to the Gamecocks 428.

The Gamecocks offense, on the opposite side of the spectrum, has four players battling it out for the team Triple Crown. James Darnell, Justin Smoak, Phil Disher and Travis Jones have done things to this league that other coaches could only dream about. All hitting .322 or above, with a combined 63 home runs and 217 runs batted in, they've about duplicated the entire Georgia offense.

Speaking of the offense, it's worth noting that Justin Smoak is one of the first 11 players to be named to the 2007 USA Baseball National Team, as announced on Wednesday afternoon by USA Baseball.

Keeping Arik Hempy on his regular schedule was important after his Tommy John surgery, so he'll stay on Friday night, even though it's game two. Hempy has been as good as one could ever imagine since returning. In nine starts, he's 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA. His WHIP, like Georgia's Dodson, is spectacular at 1.06.

Hempy will be facing Nathan Moreau, a sophomore lefty who was selected as a Freshman All-American in 2006. This year has been different though, going 5-2, he's posted a 4.46 ERA with a 1.31 WHIP.

Game three will force Coach Tanner into a decision to go with either a struggling Harris Honeycutt or freshman sensation Blake Cooper.

One of the two will face yet another Georgia sophomore in Trevor Holder, a right hander who may average almost nine strikeouts per nine innings, but he's also given up more hits than innings pitched. His 4.34 ERA is bad, but even worse, his WHIP of 1.55 means there should be Gamecocks on the base paths early and often. Facing a team of hitters like those mentioned above, the Saturday game could get ugly.

One similarity in the bullpen of both teams is obvious. Both have 2006 closers who've been blasted in 2007. Georgia's Joshua Fields has been a bigger bust at closer than Wynn Pelzer. His ERA of 4.75 is nearly three times higher than his 2006 number (1.80). A major reason the Bulldogs were able to advance to Omaha was the 15 saves and reliable arm of Fields. This year, he's 1-6 with only six saves.

This is where the similarities end, however. The Gamecocks have a handful of arms out of the pen who range between very good and average, while the Georgia pen is top heavy at best. Nick Montgomery, Steve Esmonde, and Ryan Wooley are their most reliable. After that the bullpen offers no assurance of anything.

Olivieri's Analysis

The Gamecocks need at least two wins this weekend to keep in the race for hosting a Regional. They'll also want to go into the SEC tournament on a winning note. Perhaps the easiest series of the year, Georgia's improved play of late should not be overlooked.

This should be one of those series where the national power always seems to win, no matter what. Like the blocked field goal attempt in the end of the Florida (football) game that all South Carolina fans KNEW was coming, the Gamecocks must stand up this weekend and win no matter what situation they find themselves in.

The difference between the Gamecock offense and Georgia pitching should spell disaster this weekend for the Dawgs. Even though they are playing better of late, this team is no match for the Gamecocks. Look for a first this season when the Gamecocks sweep the Bulldogs in their quest to break the forty win plateau. Sweeping an SEC series is a near impossible task, but the team seems up for the challenge. This is where the magic has to happen for a team of South Carolina's caliber to view the season as a success.

Notes

Friday is Senior Day, and the 1st 1500 fans will receive a free Sarge Frye Field replica stadium. A fireworks display will follow the game.

Saturday – All-Era teams will be honored before the series finale. The game will be televised on FSN South at 4pm.

Everyday - No parking will be available for baseball fans in the lot adjacent to Beckham Field (softball stadium) due to this weekend's NCAA Softball Regional. The lot is reserved for softball-related personnel only.

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