Preview: Tough task in Nashville

The South Carolina Gamecocks have won their first three SEC series and will look to continue their winning ways as the travel to Nashville, Tn. for a three-game SEC road series with the Vanderbilt Commodores. Look inside as's John Klauber gives and in-depth breakdown of the match-up.

Vanderbilt (25-6, 5-4 in SEC play);

South Carolina ranked #11; Vanderbilt #20 (Baseball America); NCBWA: So. Carolina #16 Vandy #19; ESPN/USA Today: So. Carolina #17 Vandy #19.

Coach Tanner is two games shy of his 1,000th (overall) victory. Picking up two from Vandy would be nice, but may be a tall order to fill.

Vanderbilt comes home after losing 2 of 3 to the Florida Gators at the Swamp. They have played two SEC series away (Alabama, Florida) and one series at home (swept Kentucky). So far, Vandy's 5-4 record is a little deceiving. Friday starter Sonny Gray has had his share of knocks on the mound in the Alabama and Florida series... two games where relief pitching did not show and secure either a Vandy lead or a closely fought game. Gray has done a good job keeping them in games; problems in the bullpen have given him two SEC losses. In fact, it could be argued (particularly by Vanderbilt fans) that Vandy's record should be 7-2... but in fact, it is not.

I look for quite a battle to start this series off with Gray versus Blake Cooper; a battle which started at Carolina Stadium last year (Sunday, May 3rd). Blake completed his first full game against the Commodores that day, going 9 innings giving up 12 hits, 3 runs and striking out 6 batters in 126 pitches thrown. It was a game where every Gamecock batter (save Jeff Jones, our DH that day) would have a hit and five batters with multiple RBI... it was an offensive day for the records for us.

'Dores are a different team... at home this year. Vanderbilt is currently 19-1 at home (3-0 against SEC play)... Yardcocks are 5-4 away (6-4 if your count the win over Clemson at Flour Field in Greenville); 2-1 on the road in SEC play.

Commodores getting press... Vanderbilt is currently 3rd in the SEC East (5-4). They are second in SEC team batting average with a .338 team batting average; S.C. is currently 7th in the same category with a .305 team batting average. Vanderbilt is currently 1st in team pitching/ERA with a team ERA at 3.04; S.C. is currently 2nd in team ERA (3.48 team ERA). Vanderbilt is currently 6th in team fielding (.974); S.C. is 7th with a team fielding average of .971. Anthony Gomez is currently #4 among all SEC individual batting leaders with .515 batting average (66 at bats, 10 runs, 34 hits and 14 RBI); no one represents S.C. in this stat. Chase Reid, Vanderbilt relief pitcher, is currently ranked #2 among individual pitchers in the SEC (1.62 ERA, 4-1 record, 33.1 innings pitched, 31hits, 13 runs, 6 walks and 31 K's); S.C. has no one on the list.

The Commodores have had similar problems as the Yardcocks have had with the inability to establish a batting order... in both cases, this hasn't been too much of a detriment as both teams produce more wins than losses... particularly in SEC play. The Yardcocks got a look at a multiple number of Carolina batters and batting order combination when they faced Mississippi State last weekend. Despite the changes, S.C. team batting averages (currently .305) are well above their opponent's batting average (.217). The same can be said for the Vanderbilt batting order, where each day in their Florida series brought a different line-up, mostly in batting order... with a few new bats thrown in for a "test". Vandy's current team batting average is .340, opponents are hitting .260 against them.

Both skippers will have to consult the Ouija Board to get that perfect batting order for this weekend's series, against the pitching that (both teams) will see. This was an area that was a definite plus for the Yardcocks last year as they outhit the Commodores 42 (hits) to VU's 29 hits, scoring 33 total runs against VU's 13. South Carolina will have to bow up at the plate this weekend to get the scoring advantage on the Commodores and have an attempt to win the series in Nashville. Easier said than done, given Vandy's propensity to win at home this year.

Vanderbilt batting order. Let's take a look and try to decipher who will be in the Vandy batting order this weekend... with a few comments along with the usual information provided about their hitting abilities. "rotated in - slot" means they have seen the most action in the batting slot over the past three weeks... particularly in SEC play. Changes in batting order were made predominantly (last weekend) in their Florida series.

Brian Harris, SS. (L-R, So.); Lead-off hitter: .356BA, 90AB, 30 runs, 19 RBI, 3 homers (.522 slg %). Hit in the mouth with a fastball against Florida but will play against S.C.

Bryan Johns, DH. (R-R, TrJr); rotated in 2nd slot: .389BA, 90AB, 26r, 12RBI, .478 SP. Pinch hitter (games 1/2), 2 slot (gm 3) against Fla.

Aaron Westlake, LF/1B. (L-R, So.); rotated in 3rd slot: .296BA, 115AB, 26r, 26RBI, 5HRs (.530 SP). Rotated in #5 slot (gm. #1/ Fla.), #4 slot (gms 2/3) against Florida.

Jason Esposito, 3B. (R-R, So.); rotated in 4th slot: .350BA, 120AB, 42r, 34RBI, 3HRs (.608 SP). Rotated in 3 slot (gm. 1), 2 slot (gm. 2), 5 slot (gm. 3) against Florida.

Andrew Giobbi, C/1B (R-R, Sr.); rotated in 5th slot: .344BA, 122AB, 26r, 29RBI, 3HRs (.492 SP). Rotated 4 slot (gm #1), 3 spot (games 2/3) against Florida.
Conner Harrell, CF/RF/LF (R-R, Fr.); rotated in 6th slot: .341BA, 91AB, 18r, 20RBI, 1HR (.462 SP). Rotated 6 slot (gms 1/3), 5th slot (gm. 2) against Florida.

Joe Loftus, RF (R-R, So.); rotated in 7th slot: .257BA, 101AB, 14r, 15RBI, 4 HRs (.406 SP). Rotated to 6 slot (gm 2), 7th slot hitter in games 1 and 3 against Florida.

Anthony Gomez, 2B (R-R, Fr.); 8 slot: .513BA, 66AB, 10r, 14RBI, .606 SP. Solid 8 slot guy; periodically used in 9 slot, but not lately.

Mike Yastremski, CF/LF (L-L, Fr.); 9 slot (against Fla.): .259BA, 58AB, 11r, 6RBI, 1HR (.345). First start at 9 slot against Fla.; gotten starts in 5 SEC games.

Others seeing playing time:

Riley Reynolds, 1B/2B (L-R, So.); .225BA, 71AB, 18r, 6RBI .268 SP. Started in 7 slot (gm. 2) against Fla.; 8 slot (gm 2) against Kentucky and 2 slot (gm 2) at Bama.

Curt Casali, 1B (R-R, Jr.); .389BA, 54AB, 14r, 12RBI, 3 HRs (.606 SP). Injured since UKy series; PH in weekday games. Pulled hamstring; could PH/DH for our series.

Regan Flaherty, (L-L, Fr.); .350BA, 20AB, 4r, 8RBI, .600 SP. Started in 8 slot against Wofford (gm. 2).

Drew Fann, (R-R, So.); .421BA, 19AB, 2r, 3RBI, .579 SP.

Vanderbilt pitching. Vandy possesses a team ERA of 3.11 (opponents... 7.47ERA); S.C.'s team ERA is 3.46 (opponents... 6.81 ERA). Both pitching staffs are preforming well with team efforts on the hump. Tough to say that one team has an advantage over the other in the pitching category. But Vanderbilt's -.35 gives them a slight edge; that edge may exist on the Friday and Sunday starts.

Blake Cooper has been doing a very good job of keeping his pitches down, in the strike zone and hits against him have stayed in the park. Blake will have to go deeper into this weekend's game appearance and limit his number of pitches/inning to be effective against Vandy. We need to have Cooper's longevity when he faces off against Sonny Gray. Sonny Gray (4-3, 2.33ERA [RHP, R-R, So.]; 46.1IP, 34h, 13r [6e], 46SO) was named to the '09 National Team (Team USA). Gray's fastball touches 90 MPH with excellent placement and he can bring the heat with a mixed curveball/slider. Coach Corbin calls Gray's curve "maybe the best we have seen at this level". Typically, opposing batters hit only .205 against Gray.

The key to Gray's pitching is his control around the plate. His slider blends in with the curve to make it one pitch. It is a power curve when he is throwing it right. His fastball possesses a little bit of east-west movement. Gray's last appearance against the Yardcocks was on Sunday, May 3rd '09 at Carolina Stadium... Gray came in to relieve their Sunday starter. It is a game Sonny would prefer to forget as he went 4 innings with 8 hits, 7 runs (all earned), 4 strikeouts with 65 pitches. Blake went 9 innings that Sunday... 4 innings against Sonny Gray. Now, they face off as starters on a Friday evening.

On Saturday, Sam Dyson will most likely face off with their Saturday guy, Taylor Hill. Taylor has had some rough outings lately and if there is a change in their weekend starting, it could start with him. Taylor Hill (3-2, 3.95 ERA [RHP, R-R, Jr.]; 41IP, 52h, 21r [18e], 31SO) has been their Saturday starter in all SEC series played to date by the Commodores. Opposing hitters are hitting an average .325 against Hill when he takes the hump. Hill will throw a fastball at @ 90mph, can throw a slider in the 83-84 range and has a change-up that hits 79-81 MPH. His two-seam fastball has good sink and movement, but he has a tough time keeping it down and in the strike zone. His change-up is the difference maker, if he is on. Command of his pitches is his biggest obstacle, but he can be lethal if his second pitch (the change-up) is hitting location.

Sunday is a tough one. Their starter, Jack Armstrong is most certainly a top pick in the 2011 MLB draft... as is Sonny Gray. Whoever we select to go against Armstrong will have their work cut out for them. Jack Armstrong (4-0,3.93ERA [RHP, R-R, So.]; 36.2 IP, 44h, 22r [16e], 26 SO) is pitching well at this point in the season... batters are hitting .297 against him. Armstrong is considered by many major league scouts to be "big league ready" as a Sophomore because of his velocity. Armstrong throws his fastball in the 92-96 mph range and has an above-average change-up with a short arm action. He is a very coordinated, young pitcher standing 6'7". He is working towards a breaking ball but for now a speedy fastball (with excellent location) and a change-up does the job for him.

Who our Sunday starter will be is anybody's guess. Jay Brown or Nolan Belcher could get the start; I would have to believe that Matt Price comes in (as he did against MSU on Sunday) for long relief. Price's role on this team is a solid one... a good outing in relief may give him looks down the road as a starter. This type of match-up is made for him out of the bullpen. This is a decision (quite frankly) that I am glad that I do not have to make. Good to have a skipper like Coach Tanner making them, right?

Chase Reid is one of Vandy's most reliable relief pitchers and can be used for Friday and Sunday if he goes minimal on Friday relief. Chase (4-1, 1.62ERA [RHP, R-R, Jr.]; 33.1IP, 31h, 13r [6e], 31SO) finished off the Yardcocks in our first loss at Hoover last year, throwing the final two outs against us. Reid will throw to keep his pitch count low and to keep pitches low. He had his first start of the season against Wofford College (Tuesday, 3/30) and went 2.0 innings (3h, 1r, 2 Ks). Reid throws a variety of pitches but his curveball is his best out-pitch.

Typically, Reid will work with another relief pitcher, Ritchie Goodenow, with Goodenow setting up for Reid to close. Goodenow (1-0, 2.65ERA [LHP/DH, L-L, Jr.]; 17.1IP, 14h, 5r [5e], 22SO) is a dominating left-handed pitcher and works really well out of the pen for Vandy to match lefty for lefty late in a game or down the (later) stretch. He has good control of his pitches; batters are only hitting .233 against him in relief.

Drew Hayes is another reliever that got a start this week against Belmont in Vanderbilt's Tuesday game. Drew (2-0, 4.98 [RHP, R-R, Sr.]; 21.2IP, 22h, 13r [12e], 17SO) will come in on Saturdays/Sundays and will usually pitch @ 1.2 innings/appearance. Hayes was the Saturday starter against Carolina last year in Columbia. He has been much more effective as a middle reliever for Vandy this year. Hayes has worked hard on his control, has excellent velocity on his pitches... batters are hitting only .272 against him when he comes in as a reliever.

Russell Brewer excels as the Vandy closer. Brewer (1-0, 0.00 [RHP, R-R, Jr.]; 16IP, 11h, 0r,16SO) developed into a very effective closer and sees plenty of action in that role against SEC teams. Throws a fastball in the 88-90 MPH range and has a slider and change-up that he throws effectively, which makes "honing in" to his fastball a dangerous proposition for a hitter. He is presntly working on a splitter for left-handed batters. His accuracy is his strongest attribute... it doesn't matter if the count is 0-2 or 3-2, if he is making his pitches. His 88 MPH pitch can look like a 94 MPH pitch due to his ability to vary the velocity of his different pitches thrown. Batters hit .190 against him.

Vanderbilt is missing one of their solid middle relievers, Corey Williams. Williams suffered a season ending injury (broken knee) in game #3 against Florida last weekend (YouTube account of the injury), but made a spectacular play before he went down. Corey was able to provide the Commodores with an average of 1.3 innings of solid relief in conference games before the injury. This will have an effect on who Vanderbilt will have available (with experience) as Corey (RS Fr. LHP; 2.65ERA, 17IP, 14 hits, 5 runs, 17 K's) was solid in relief efforts on weekends for short outings, averaging a strikeout/inning in short relief.

Whoever takes the mound or plays 3B should get ready to field bunts as the Vanderbilt team will rely upon them (as do we) when hits are at a premium. Our infield play has to be exceptionally good as Vandy runners have stolen 48 bases out of an attempted 64 (78% success rate). Look for Jason Esposito (14-16 St. Bases) and Andrew Giobbi (7-7) to make a run for thefts and extra bags on base hits. The small things in this game could be the difference makers in the series this weekend.

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