USC set for weekend series in Knoxville

It's been an uphill battle for the South Carolina baseball team this season, but with a three-game series against Tennessee in Knoxville this weekend, the Gamecocks have a chance to move above .500 in conference play for the first time all year.

Last week, the South Carolina baseball team returned to the field after a near week-long break from action due to exams. The result – a three-game sweep of Vanderbilt. With the mid-week game against Wofford being canceled due to inclement weather earlier this week, the Gamecocks hit the field for the first time since Sunday as they travel to Tennessee this weekend. For USC coach Ray Tanner, optimism is in the air.

"I really hope that we can parlay that into playing well on the road," Tanner said. "We just had the exam break and played well against Vandy. Then didn't play the mid-week game yesterday, so I'm hoping now that the guys have exams behind them, we can go into Knoxville and play well."

After sweeping the Commodores last weekend, the Gamecocks evened their record in SEC play to 12-12, making it the second time this season they have sat at the .500 mark after the completion of weekend series. However, the last time USC had a chance to rise above even par, they dropped three straight games to Florida. But Tanner believes the desire to move above .500 in conference play is something his team will carry with them into the weekend.

"It would mean a lot to us. We've been playing uphill the entire season. Going back to Starkville at the beginning of the year, we went 1-2 and we've been trying to play ourselves back into it," Tanner said. "We're hanging in there, we've hung in there. If we can get above that, that would be great for us."

The wins last weekend moved Carolina into third place in the SEC Eastern Division standings, and placed them at No. 7 in the SEC Tournament's field of eight teams. Making the conference tournament has become the main goal of the Gamecocks down the back stretch. Under Tanner's guidance, USC has never missed the SEC Tournament and has used it as a springboard to a bid to the NCAA Regionals. Carolina has made the NCAA Regionals nine straight seasons under Tanner.

"I know it's an unwritten rule that if you make it to Hoover you've got a chance to play beyond. No guarantees, but that's the focus right now - win enough games to get to Hoover," Tanner said. "There's a lot going on and I try not to put too much pressure on my players, but there's a lot at stake. You've got to get to Hoover. You've got to have enough wins to get to the postseason. Your RPI's got to be pretty good, which ours is. But you've got to continue to win games. Our players have been pretty good about it. They've figured it out a little bit.

"If we get a chance to play in Hoover and beyond, then it all starts over again, everybody is 0-0. And we're a better team certainly now than we were at the beginning of the year. However, if you don't win enough games, you don't get to play at the end of the year. So it's simple - win games and continue to play; and if you don't, not a good situation."

The Gamecocks (30-18, 12-12 SEC) will bring in a youthful roster that put up its best offensive performance of the season last weekend. USC scored 33 runs on 42 hits with 10 home runs in wins over Vanderbilt last weekend. Tennessee (21-27, 7-17 SEC) has struggled throughout the season to play consistently, but they do have a series win over SEC Western Division favorite LSU to their credit.

Carolina will also come into the weekend with a pitching rotation that has finally been shored up, thanks in large part to three solid outings. Starters Sam Dyson, Nolan Belcher and Blake Cooper each lasted over seven innings last weekend, with Cooper picking up a complete game and Dyson coming just one out short of a complete performance.

While his team seems to be gelling late in the year, Tanner has been realistic about his youthful team as they wrap up a season that appears to be finishing the way he hoped it might. "I try to be realistic, but as you mentioned, expectations from a coaching standpoint are you always have expectations exceeding really what reality is, I think. A lot of coaches do that in all sports," Tanner said. "I never go back and say,‘You know what, we should've won 10 more games,' because I don't think that's realistic. But I always go back and go, ‘Two or three more here could've made a difference,' because that's three more wins and three less losses, so it's a six-game swing. Have we met my expectations? No. But being fair to how we started and our personnel, we're not far off from where we need to be. And my hope is that somehow we get there before it's all over."

Gamecocks, Upstate to play double-header on Tuesday

After weather concerns forced the cancellation of Wednesday's game with Wofford, Tanner announced that Carolina would play a day/night double-header with USC Upstate on Tuesday, May 12, to make up for the lost game.

Game 1 will start at 4 p.m. with the second game set to start at 7 p.m., or 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first. The make-up date keeps USC's regular season game total at 56 contests.

USC seeking another year for Brown.

After missing a scheduled start against Wofford on Wednesday, USC pitcher Jay Brown could see time out of the bullpen this weekend, according to Tanner. The senior could also return to the team next fall, as Tanner and his staff are seeking a medical redshirt for Brown from a previous season in hopes he will get another year on the roster.

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