Tanner, USC ready for test against LSU

After a sluggish start to conference play, South Carolina is looking to rebound, but the task won't be easy as they face LSU in the first conference series at Carolina Stadium. The Tigers come in having taken two-of-three from Kentucky in their first weekend series.

It wasn't the ideal start to conference play for South Carolina, but at the end of the day, things appear to have worked out for now.

After dropping two-of-three to Mississippi State over the weekend, the Gamecocks find themselves in a five-way tie in the SEC Eastern Division after five other SEC teams finished their opening weekend of conference play 1-2.

"That's when you're looking for the positive in things," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "When you go on the road in this league it can be very difficult, and we certainly were not at our best against Mississippi State in Starkville. Now we get to come home to play against what many people thought would be the best team in the country, certainly still a good team, in the top 10. So our work's cut out for us."

Tanner is undoubtedly right, as the road back to .500 in league play will not come easy when the Gamecocks play host to No. 5 LSU this weekend. After taking two-of-three from Kentucky over the weekend, the Tigers (15-4) come in tied for second in the SEC West.

Once considered the golden standard for all of college baseball, LSU is considered one of the best teams in the land yet again, thanks in large part to a solid pitching staff and hot hitting offense.

"When you say ‘down,' that's all relative. They're very good," Tanner said. "They've got great personnel, they've got great pitching, they've got guys that can run, they've got guys that can hit it out of the park, guys that can defend. They just have tremendous, tremendous personnel."

All five of the Tigers' regular starters come in with an ERA under 2.75 plus two wins or more. The staff is headlined by Friday starter Anthony Ranaudo who has complied a 2-0 record and 1.85 ERA. From scouting reports USC has received, Tanner said he expects Ranaudo to hit the upper 90s with his pitches.

Meanwhile, four Tiger position players are still batting over .400, including catcher Sean Ochinko. The junior comes in tied for the SEC lead in batting average with a .464 average along with 27 RBI and six home runs.

"He didn't get to play every day for them last year," Tanner said. "(Now) he's getting a chance to play everyday and he's capitalizing on the opportunity. He's doing a great job for them on the offensive side."

While LSU hasn't released its other two starters for the series, the Gamecocks (13-4) will counter whatever the Tigers throw at them with a youth movement. Normal starter Sam Dyson will start on Friday, with freshmen Adam Westmoreland and Nolan Belcher on Saturday and Sunday respectively. Westmoreland, who has improved to 2-0 in four appearances, will be looking to secure a weekend starter role, while Belcher will try to get back on track, as his ERA has risen to 7.42 in five appearances.

"Ideally you'd like to be in a different environment with junior pitchers and high draft picks and those kinds of things, but these guys are guys that we thought would be very good freshmen, and what better way to get it going than to pitch against a powerful team like LSU at home; it can be a situation where if they have good games, it can put them ahead of the game," Tanner said.

After getting swept in the regular season and in one game in the SEC Tournament last year, South Carolina outfielder Whit Merrifield isn't ready to take any more rubbing from the Bayou Bengals.

"I had a couple of guys on the LSU team that played with me this summer, and they reminded me constantly about that series, and there's definitely a little revenge to it," Merrifield said. "But at the same time we're trying to get over the .500 mark in the SEC, and we've got to beat a good team this weekend."

Though evening up their conference record and getting a series win over one of the best teams in the SEC is the team's goal, according to Merrifield, he believes this weekend will be a good way of figuring out how prepared USC is for a run at the postseason.

"Playing them right now, I don't think is good or bad, it's just another series. We're really excited about it. We're looking forward to seeing where we stand," Merrifield said.

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