USC heads to Ole Miss in search of series win
Before South Carolina coach Ray Tanner could leave the field at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson he had already begun thinking about the Gamecocks upcoming series at No. 14 Ole Miss over the weekend.
Tanner, who had just watched the first four USC pitchers placed in the game issue seven walks and hit two batters, made it clear that the word on everybody's mind all weekend was going to be simple – pitching.
"Ole Miss is dominant on the mound. They're really good up front and they've been playing really well," Tanner said.
The Rebels (24-8, 8-4 SEC) have used a strong starting rotation and an overall balanced pitching staff to earn a tie with LSU for second place in the Western Division. The staff features five pitchers with three or more wins on the season.
Friday starter Drew Pomeranz returns to the opening game spot after being ill to start last weekend's series against Kentucky. His 3-0 record in six starts and 3.09 ERA have made him the staff ace. On Saturday, the Rebels will send Phillip Irwin out to the mound with a 5-1 record and 2.93 ERA and will close the weekend with Mr. Everything Scott Bittle.
Though he's not a regular starter, Bittle has compiled a staff leading 2.03 ERA in 10 appearances with a 2-2 record and three saves. That dominating rotation has Tanner believing the Gamecocks will need a strong showing at the plate to stay in contention.
"They've got Bittle there at the back end. I think he had 13 strikeouts last week and threw a shutout. Pomeranz's a Friday night guy," Tanner said. "They've got some power arms. We're going to have to have a good weekend offensively."
Tanner is hopeful that his team will be able to match Ole Miss' arms with a solid start of their own. After tinkering with the starting rotation early in the year, Tanner and pitching coach Mark Calvi have reverted to their original starting order at the beginning of the season. USC (21-11, 5-7 SEC) will send Sam Dyson out Friday, and he will followed by Nolan Belcher and Blake Cooper on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Last weekend, the strong outing belonged to Belcher as the true freshman picked up his first win of the season with over eight innings of work against Arkansas in which he gave up just four hits and one run.
Sunday starter Blake Cooper noted that a new focus by the USC pitching staff on getting ahead in counts has become a renewed focus.
"When you fall behind in counts, you give the hitter a 2-0 count, most likely you're going to throw your fastball because you don't want to walk people and with a 2-0 count hitters are sitting on a fastball and they're going to get their pitch to hit. It just goes in the hitter's hands," Cooper said. "Getting ahead in the count helps win ball games. It helps win the count, the hitter and the ball game. That's a big key for us."
After picking up a complete game win against Kentucky two weekends ago, Cooper had a tough five innings against Arkansas last weekend in a 7-4 loss. That defeat was the third dropped SEC series by USC of the four they have played this season, and it put the Gamecocks two games under .500 in conference play with just six conference series left to play.
Of the six remaining sets, Carolina plays three of them at home (Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia). That home friendly stretch is one that Cooper believes will help the Gamecocks close out strong and put them in possible position to host an NCAA Regional.
"That's going to be a big key for us. You always want to play at home. Home field advantage, you just feel more comfortable. You don't have to worry about going on the road and things like that so it helps out," Cooper said. "We want to win, but we've just got to try to contend this weekend. If we can contend against Ole Miss, we can contend against most people in the SEC and throughout the country."
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