Carolina Ready for SEC Tournament

It took a dramatic walk-off homerun to get there, but the Gamecocks are headed to Hoover, AL, for the SEC Tournament. First up for Carolina is the LSU Tigers, one of the hottest teams in the nation and a team that swept the Gamecocks earlier this year in Baton Rouge. The matchup between the two teams will be the first game of the Tournament, with first pitch scheduled for 11 AM on Wednesday.

In somewhat of a surprise move, Ray Tanner will call on freshman right-hander Sam Dyson to try to tame the Tigers. Dyson is 7-0 on the year with a 3.86 ERA, but all his starts have come during the week. The decision was made primarily based on matchups. Tanner wanted to go with either Dyson or junior Mike Cisco on Wednesday. If the Gamecocks were playing Georgia, Cisco, who pitched eight scoreless innings against the Bulldogs earlier this season, would have gotten the call. However, LSU torched Cisco for 10 runs in their earlier encounter, so Tanner wants to see what his hard throwing freshman can do when he faces SEC hitters for the first time as a starter.

"He's a guy that's made some progress throughout the year," he said. "He's rested, and I know he feels very capable on this stage. I just felt good about it."

"I've thrown pretty well coming in, and hopefully I'll just continue to do so," Dyson said. "I was definitely surprised [to get the call]."

LSU presents a formidable challenge for Dyson. The Tigers have won 16 games in a row, and gone 17 games without a loss (LSU and Georgia played to a 10-10 tie on April 20, the last game LSU did not win). During that winning streak, the Tigers have averaged 9.4 runs per game, and have scored in double figures seven times. The Gamecocks experienced LSU's firepower firsthand, giving up 11, 11, and 6 runs in the three game series.

"We're playing a club that is the hottest team in the country I think," Tanner said. "You can look at it a couple of ways: how good they are or are they due to lose? We just want to play well and stay in a position to win."

As good as LSU is, there is a sense of relief surrounding the Gamecocks. Every team in the tournament starts out 0-0, so Carolina is no longer looking up at the standings. They essentially played the last two games against Tennessee facing elimination, so the double-elimination of post-season play seems like a breeze.

"We're ecstatic to be going [to Hoover] because we were in the situation a few days ago that we had a lot to play for in order to continue to play," said Tanner. "You break your season down, and you play conference and non-conference [opponents], and you try to see where you are at the end and have a chance to go to your conference tournament and then the post-season."

South Carolina has struggled all season away from Sarge Frye Field. The Gamecocks went 27-8 at home, but struggled to a losing road record of 10-11. The Gamecocks have not played any official neutral site games this year, and Regions Park, the site of the SEC Tournament, is technically a neutral site. However, Carolina's power hitters are not likely to confuse it with the homerun friendly Sarge Frye Field. The Sarge is 325 feet down the foul lines, and 390 feet to center, while Regions Park is 340 feet down the foul lines and 405 feet to center. Although the Gamecocks are not likely to hit as many homers as they are used to, Tanner finds solace in the fact the opponents face the same predicament.

"Sometimes you get in situations where big parks play in your favor, or against you," Tanner shrugged. "You'd think that we're a home run hitting team and this plays against us, but I don't look at it that way. If you get good passes at the ball, you make good contact, sometimes guys play you too deep and the balls fall in front [of the outfielder]."

The Gamecocks have four players who have hit 16 or more home runs this year. Reese Havens and Phil Disher both hit 16, James Darnell had 18, and Carolina's career home run leader Justin Smoak led the way with 20. Last year Smoak had several long fly balls that would have cleared the fence in most parks, but stayed on the warning track at Regions Park. He tries not to think about how big the park is, and approaches each at bat the same as in any other park.

"If you're going to hit a home run, you've got to hit it good anyway," he said. "You've got to go out and play like you played all year. It's a bigger field yes, but on the other side, we've hit some home runs out of this field before. If you hit one good, it's going to go out."

Will Atwood will be available out of the bullpen Wednesday, and if he does not pitch, he could start later in the tournament, should the Gamecocks get that far. Nick Godwin is expected to get the start on Thursday. The Gamecocks will play either Florida or Vanderbilt in that game. If Carolina loses to LSU, that game will be at 11 AM. If Carolina is in the winner's bracket, that game will be at 2 PM.

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