USC hopes to make statement against Arkansas
After Thursday night's win over Furman, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner was asked about his team's upcoming schedule. Over the next eight games, the Gamecocks will host SEC Western Division leading Arkansas and travel to third place Ole Miss while sandwiching two games against in-state rival Clemson in between. His response – "Who scheduled these games?"
This weekend's upcoming series with Arkansas not only begins a tough stretch of competition but equals the midway point of the season for the team who is looking to stay in contention for the SEC Eastern Division title.
"You don't want to overstate anything, but they're all important. And certainly if we could do well during this eight game stretch it makes a loud statement for us. It doesn't make us cause there's a lot left. But it would propel us into the second half," Tanner said. "We need to play well. I guess we've got four at home and four on the road, and this is certainly a tough stretch for us."
Though they dropped two games in each of their first two SEC series, the Gamecocks (19-8, 4-5 SEC) bounced back last weekend with two wins over Kentucky in Lexington. A 20-19 slugfest and complete game performance from Blake Cooper helped USC move within one game of .500 in league play.
However, they dropped a 12-5 game at The Citadel before taking the 10-0 over Furman during the middle of the week.
But for Carolina centerfielder Whit Merrifield the upcoming competition is a welcomed challenge despite some tough times.
"It's a big, big weekend for us. We've got a chance to get back to .500 in the league, and we've got a chance to beat a good team," Merrifield said. "I think we're playing well right now and we're looking forward to playing these good teams. To be at the top of the league you've got to beat the teams at the top of the league. And right now Arkansas is in contention to be SEC Champion, and we want to take it from them."
The Hogs (20-5, 8-1 SEC) have used a strong start in conference play to propel themselves to the top of the SEC West standings. Arkansas swept their first two conference series with Florida and Auburn and took the first two from Mississippi State last weekend before falling 12-4 in the series finale.
Though they don't lead the conference in team statistical categories, Arkansas has played solid baseball all season long. They've hit double figures in runs six times and picked up four wins in extra innings. That consistency is what Tanner feels makes the Hogs a dangerous team to face.
"Winning eight of nine SEC games is a pretty impressive start in this league. I'm hoping they're not at their best this weekend, and maybe we can have some good games," Tanner said.
Merrifield says he and the players feel the same way.
"They're a hot team right now. They're a very good team and we're looking forward to playing them," Merrifield said. "From looking at their numbers and seeing that they're not anything spectacular, it just makes me assume that they play well as a team together. They're a good team, a team, and they're hot right now."
While the series is a launching point for a tough eight game stretch, it is also the midway point of the season for the Gamecocks who come in to the series 11 games over .500.
With an abundance of underclassmen and first-year players seeing significant playing time, Merrifield says the current results are good for now but the team must get better as things go on.
"It's probably acceptable, but I think if you would have asked us at the beginning of the year I think we would have expected more. We're definitely alright with where we are, we're in contention and that's where we want to be," Merrifield said. "But we know we haven't played great and we know that as we progress through the year we'll play better. We're definitely happy we haven't let stuff slip too far and we'll pick it up towards the end of the year."
Price shelved for remainder of season
Freshman pitcher Matt Price will miss the rest of the season due to a factured wrist he sustained during The Citadel game on Tuesday. The right hander was injured in a collision at first base during the game. He compiled a 1-1 record with a 4.05 ERA, and the school is seeking a medical redshirt for him.
Projected Starting lineup and pitching rotation
C Justin Dalles
1B Nick Ebert
2B Scott Wingo
SS Bobby Haney
3B Andrew Crisp
LF DeAngelo Mack
CF Whit Merrifield
RF Jackie Bradley, Jr.
DH Parker Bangs or Kyle Enders
SC Sam Dyson (4-1 4.21 ERA)
Ark Dallas Keuchel (4-0, 3.32 ERA)
SC Nolan Belcher (0-1, 5.70 ERA)
Ark TJ Forrest (2-1, 3.72 ERA)
Blake Cooper (4-2, 4.01 ERA)
Drew Smyly (2-1, 2.84 ERA)
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