Gamecocks carry hot streak into SEC tourney
Three weeks ago, the South Carolina baseball team was a squad possibly playing its way out of the postseason with a four-game losing streak. But after winning 10 of the last 11 games, the Gamecocks secured a No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament and are arguably one of the hottest teams in the country.
The reward for the recent success – a first round game against Alabama in their home state. Though they aren't the hands down favorite to claim the conference tournament crown, the Crimson Tide have a reputation of bringing out a mass audience to watch them play. But for USC coach Ray Tanner, that is just another factor his team will have to deal with.
"I hope it's not a detriment. I sort of hope it's a motivating factor. Between now and our game Wednesday night I'm going to put an emphasis on Thursday's a work day in Alabama and they should wait until later on in the tournament to come out," Tanner said. "So hopefully it won't be packed but I've seen some games there at Regions Park where they've packed them in for the Crimson Tide."
Alabama and Carolina come in with plenty of similarities across the stat sheet with the biggest comparison being what they can do at the plate. With a team average of over .310, the Crimson Tide lead the SEC in team batting average while USC is just a few spots back with a team average of over .300. The two are tops in slugging percentage in the conference.
Along with the team categories, both squads field two of the top power hitters in the SEC. USC's Nick Ebert and Alabama's Kent Matthes have each cleared the 20-plus home run mark. Both players helped carry their teams to strong finishes and both squads feature numerous players with double-figure home run totals on the season. That offense has been a big reason for the success both teams are having at the end of the year.
"We're pretty hot right now and hopefully it can stay that way. We've got a lot of momentum coming off the seven game winning streak right now and hopefully we can keep it going," USC outfielder DeAngelo Mack said. "I feel like we can keep it up. I feel like we had a lot of growing pains earlier in the season. I feel like everything's starting to click well together right now. We've got our pitching going well and our hitting going well at the same time so we're a pretty dangerous team when that happens."
While both teams have made a reputation of being power hitting clubs, that feat won't come easy as Regions Park provides much deeper dimension than that of most college baseball stadiums. The field, which plays home to a Double-A baseball team, is almost 20 feet deeper than Carolina Stadium which is the newest park in the conference. The deeper numbers limit the amount of home runs normally hit in the park. Those numbers are cause for a possible change in game plan according to Mack.
"It's kind of big. It's probably 345 down the lines, like 410 in center. It's a lot bigger than what we have here and the wind doesn't really blow out there so we're just going to have to hit a lot of doubles, base hits," Mack said. "You kind of don't want to take a big swing there because it's an out most of the time. You just want to stay in the gaps and try not to over swing too much."
USC's Wednesday night starter Blake Cooper isn't as easily convinced. The junior is one of the most experienced arms on the Gamecock pitching staff and has played in the SEC Tournament before. Though the deeper dimensions might help keep some balls in play, Cooper has stressed the importance of continuing to make pitches because nothing is truly safe, especially with a home crowd backing you up.
"It's college baseball and you're using an aluminum bat so anything can happen with an aluminum bat. So you've just got to keep going and keep making pitches, and if you do that you should be fine," Cooper said. "I pitched there a few times freshman and sophomore year so it's going to be a good crowd since we're playing Alabama. It's going to be packed since it's the home town (team) but I'm ready to go."
A win would not only move South Carolina along in the tournament but could help them once their time in Hoover comes to a close. USC is battling with other SEC teams as a possible host site for NCAA Regionals next weekend, and a win over Alabama might be something that catches the eye of the selection committee. While nothing is guaranteed, Tanner has emphasized to his team what the strong run so far has done and could continue to do.
"One of my sales pitches to this team when we were scuffling was: 'Guys, if we can win enough, you don't have to win 45 games, but if you can win enough to get to the postseason everybody starts even again,'" Tanner said. "We've played the best we've played lately so we could be a scary (team). Are we one of the best teams in the country? I don't know. But we've played well lately."
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