Pitching staff firing on all cylinders
Jay Brown had spent the previous two days watching his South Carolina teammates mow down the Georgia batting order with 28 strikeouts in the first two games. So when Brown got the call out of the bullpen to relieve starting pitcher Blake Cooper after two innings on Saturday, he knew what was at stake. And he responded.
In six innings of work, Brown struck out four batters and held the Bulldogs to just one run. It was exactly the appearance Brown was looking for after some struggles against USC Upstate earlier in the week.
"It's tough being a pitcher in the respect that you can't play the next game after an 0-for-4 with three K's and then get a home run and a double. You have to sit on that outing until your next appearance which is usually three, four or five days away. But definitely it was good to get back out there," Brown said.
For USC coach Ray Tanner, Brown's bounce back attitude has been a welcome addition to this year's team which struggled early to find an identity. The senior from Brunswick, Ga has overcome injuries and hardships en route to a senior season that has seen him notch a 3-0 record as a mid-week starter and a possible arm to use in the SEC Tournament this week.
"Jay has worked very, very hard to be where he is. I just felt like it was the perfect situation to have a guy like him on the mound today," Tanner said after Saturday's game. "Everybody wanted him to do well. His teammates, the fans and he was able to do that. I'm happy about his performance today and where he is."
Brown's rise to a possible No. 4 spot in the Gamecock pitching rotation is a microcosm of what has happened to the USC pitching staff over the last month of work. The Gamecocks entered May having lost five of the last seven games and were on a four-game losing streak thanks in large part to a series sweep at the hands of Florida. The losses gave Carolina a 27-18 record putting them on the brink of not making the postseason. But those "April showers" did manage to bring "May flowers" as the team now sits on a seven-game win streak with a 37-19 record and a No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament, which starts Wednesday against Alabama at 9:30 p.m.
The success can largely be accredited to a pitching staff that has seen a solid turnaround over the course of the last month. Prior to May, the Carolina arms had yielded 10 runs in 10 different games and were giving up an average of 5.84 runs per game. Since May began, USC is only giving up an average of 4.73 runs per game.
The strikeout totals have also gone on the rise as the team averaged 7.93 strikeouts per game over the course of the first 45 games. In the last 11 outings, the team is averaging 8.27 strikeouts per game including last weekend's 34 combined strikeouts against a Georgia team that came in batting .301. USC limited them to just seven runs over the course of the three game series.
"I think it was our mental approach. We went over the scouting report with coach (Mark) Calvi early on in the week and we were focused and determined," Brown said. "When we struggled this season there was something that we knew we had it in us to really come out to have a weekend like this. It wasn't anything that we were discouraged throughout that, we knew it was going to come we were just hoping it would come at the right time and now it's coming and it's exciting."
The improvement on the mound might be happening at just the right time for the Gamecocks who are carrying the hot streak down to Hoover with the intent of coming out with their first conference tournament title since 2004. Tanner will most likely start junior Blake Cooper during the opening game after he pitched for just two innings against Georgia on Saturday. With an abundance of other arms coming around at the right time, Tanner and his staff are pleased with what's going on.
"Quite honestly we probably feel better now than we felt the entire season. Things have started to fall in place for us a little bit here at the end," Tanner said. "(Sam) Dyson's had some games, (Nolan) Belcher, Cooper's looked good for us probably four of his last five appearances and Jay Brown's become a guy. (Adam) Westmoreland has had his rest, (Alex) Farotto. We've done OK and then CuJo (Curtis Johnson) gave us a quality inning yesterday. It's tough, we've played a lot of tough teams, but our pitching staff has done a nice job the last couple of days."
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