Preview: SEC play begins

After playing a pre-conference schedule that featured two series with top-25 ball clubs, the Gamecocks will enter SEC play Friday night in the first of a three-game set with the Tennessee Volunteers. Look inside as GamecockAnthem.com's John Klauber has what to expect this weekend in his preview of the Vol's baseball club.

TENNESSEE (11-19 in SEC play; '09; currently 9-7)

Best wins: Oregon State (in Corvalis Oregon; lost weekend series)
Ugliest losses: Kennesaw State, Binghamton

The SEC baseball coaches poll (posted 2/17 on secsports.com) picked Tennessee to finish last in the SEC East and dead last in the conference for 2010. The Volunteers are currently 11th in total batting average among SEC teams... S.C. is 6th. They are currently 9th among SEC teams in team ERA (4.41)... S.C. is 7th with a 4.17 team ERA. That in itself makes this team dangerous. They have something to prove and the best way to prove it is in SEC play; take a series in someone else's house and you can get in-conference and national respect.

Their outfield has set players from last year's team featuring five Juniors, a smattering of Freshmen, one Sophomore and one Senior. They have some experience and can connect with their bats.

Here is their starting line-up with position played and batting averages:

P.J. Polk (lead off hitter). R-R, Junior playing left field; .364 BA (batting average).
Khayyon Norfolk. R-R, Junior playing 2B; .256 BA.
Josh Lyles. R-R, Junior playing CF; .342 BA.
Cody Stubbs. L-R, Freshman playing 1B and DH; .256 BA.
Blake Forsythe. R-R, Junior playing catcher and DH; .235 BA.
Chris Fritts. R-R, Freshman playing RF; .205 BA.
Matt Hamaker. R-R, Senior playing catcher; .342 BA.
Matt Duffy. R-R, Junior playing 3B; .275 BA.
Zach Osborne. R-R, Sophomore playing SS; .263 BA.

In rotation:
Drew Steckenrider. S-R, Freshman playing DH, pitcher/OF; .111 BA.
Cody Hawn. L-R, Junior playing 1B; .347 BA.
Charley Thurber. L-L, Sophomore playing RF; .250 BA.

Cody Hawn suffered an injury in the pre-season, and is slowly working his way into the line-up. He is an exceptional hitter. They have three big sticks in the line-up hitting over .300 and one off the bench. The players hitting in the .200s are hitting high .200s (4 players) and only one hitting in the low .200s*. P.J. Polk is a great lead-off hitter, has good speed and if he gets on he will challenge our infield with attempted steals; he makes things happen. All in all, looking at their individual batting averages it is hard to believe they are 11th in our conference. Our pitchers will have to be on their toes to keep them there.

What they do bring to the table is good pitching and may be battling some injuries to key weekend starters as they arrive in Columbia for our series. Here are UT's weekend starters:

Stephen McCray. RHP/DH (L-R, Sr.) .73ERA/0.00 BA; Friday starter. Had some forearm stiffness in a game last week after 5 innings of pitching. Will probably start for the Vols, but may be on a pitch count; usually handles about 5.1 innings/game. He has picked up some new pitches over the off-season, learning how to throw a cut fastball and a sinker; both with good accuracy. He keeps the ball low in the strike zone and gets good movement with inside/ outside pitches across the plate. Capable of throwing a fastball in the 93-94 mph range. McCray forces a lot of ground outs and can be tough to hit... if he is on.

Steven Gruver. LHP (L-L, So.) 3.00ERA; Saturday starter. Came out of a game last week with soreness in the elbow. Originally diagnosed at tendinitis but an MRI was taken as a precaution. This is similar to Curtis Johnson's situation last year if it is tendinitis. CuJo took quite a bit of time to heal, but never came back as strong before the injury. Word is he will pitch on Saturday... we will see.

Bryan Morgado. LHP (L-L, Jr.) 5.16ERA; Sunday starter. Morgado is currently listed 5th among all strikeout leaders in the SEC with 29Ks in 22.2 innings. Received the SEC's "Pitcher of the Week" award (3/15) for his performance against Connecticut. He pitched seven innings against the Huskies, giving up one hit and no runs. Has good velocity on his fastball; 94-95 mph "swing and miss" pitch. Also possesses a slider that gets under right-handed hitters bats. He struggles with consistency; inconsistencies are with his delivery and arm action. Trying to develop a workable change-up pitch. His two pitch mix (fastball/slider) gets hitters out...if he is on.

Steve Crnkovich. RHP (R-R, Sr.) 5.40ERA; pitches relief and is the fourth man in rotation... typically among the weekend pitchers. He has excellent control of his pitches with a mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches.

Pitchers used in relief:

Spencer Clifft. RHP (R-R, Jr. Transfer) 9.53ERA, 3Ks, 5.2 innings pitched.
Rob Catapano. LHP (L-L, Jr. Tr. from UNC) 4.91ERA, 7Ks, 11.0 IP.
Will Locante. LHP (L-L, So.) 1.59ERA, 5 Ks, 5.2 IP.
Nick Blount. RHP (R-R, Fr.) 4.22ERA, 6Ks, 10.2 IP.
Adam Adkins. LHP (L-L, So.) 10.12ERA, 2Ks, 2.2 IP.
Alan Walden. RHP (R-R, Fr.) 12.27ERA, 3Ks, 3.2 IP.
Aaron Tullo. RHP (R-R, Sr.) 3.52ERA, 7Ks, 7.2 IP.
Drew Steckenrider. RHP (S-R, Fr.) 4.50ERA, 3Ks, 2.0 IP.

The Gamecocks will have to handle this team very carefully; there is a lot of experience on UT's infield positions and playing aggressively on the basepads may not pay the dividends it did against Furman and Valparaiso. This team will be tougher to beat if you are hitting a lot of singles; an array of hits with guys on bases will be needed to take 2 out of 3. Playing the first series at home in conference play has to be a lift for our guys and I expect them to be ready for the challenge... despite all of the question marks that exist with our defense and offense.

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