After last weekend's series against Mississippi the Gamecocks are now halfway through their 10 week SEC schedule. Carolina fans have to be impressed with how this team has fared since losing to Clemson 19-6 on March 7. Since that time Carolina has only lost four games while winning eight different series. That span includes USC's longest series winning streak to start the SEC in its history at five in a row. The gamecocks hope to improve on that tally next week when they take on UGA in Athens. I'll actually be in attendance for the Sunday game. If you you'd like to join me, I'll be the loud a-hole in the SC hat sitting in the back next to his moderately embarrassed girl friend.
More on that later in the week. For now, let's get down to brass tacks. After dropping their first two major series of the season to ECU and Clemson both by a 2-1 margin, we Gamecock fans were wondering how this season might shape up. Both ECU and Clemson entered their series with USC highly ranked, but it was still unclear just how good these teams were. To some degree, being within a run or two of taking each series helped alleviate some of the stress of losing both. On the other hand, Carolina was only a couple of runs from being swept in each series. It also didn't help the Carolina got thoroughly embarrassed at home against Clemson for the second straight year.
Flash forward to the present and the fortunes of the three teams have reversed considerably. Just this past week Carolina came within two runs of sweeping #19 ranked Mississippi, Clemson was swept by #4 Georgia Tech, and both ECU and Clemson have fallen out of Baseball America's rankings. Moreover, USC finds itself just below Coast in the Carolina Cup. What's the Carolina Cup you might ask (aside from a poorly marketed horse racing event in Camden)? It's what I like to call the competition for the title of greatest baseball team in the Carolinas. Currently, the standings shake out thusly:
RPI standings for the Carolinas after he jump:
#8 Coastal Carolina
#12 South Carolina
#30 Western Carolina
#36 North Carolina
#46 Appalachian State
#49 College of Charleston
#60 East Carolina
#85 NC State
#93 UNC Wilmington
I could go on, but, honestly, the the RPI goes all the way to 300.This list is representative of the major players right now in Carolinas baseball. I also included UGA in there as a reference point. The shear volume of quality baseball being played in the Carolinas is amazing. Georgia, you'll remember is only two years removed from playing the national title game.
As I write this USC is putting the finishing touches on a 4-2 victory over USC Upstate. This brings Carolina's record to 29-8 (11-4 SEC). We're currently tied with LSU in SEC, 1 game behind Arkansas for the regular season league title. Florida is right behind at 10-5. With series against both the Gators and Hogs left on our schedule, those numbers mean virtually nothing. At this point the Gamecocks control their own destiny, but their's is anything but an easy row to hoe.
This season has been surprising for a number of reasons, not the least of which is South Carolina's pitching success. Five weeks into the SEC schedule, USC leads the SEC in ERA (2.98), opposing batting average (.218), batters struck out looking (44), hits allowed (104), runs allowed (56), earned runs allowed (44), doubles allowed (13), triples allowed (0), and home runs allowed (7). Carolina is second in the SEC in batters struck out (129) and walks allowed (44). Those are some pretty gaudy statistics from a staff that has been seen as the weak link of the team for the better part of five years.
Meanwhile, Gamecock hitters appear to be slumping for the first time in a long while. As a team, USC is hitting just .269, good for 9th in the SEC. Even lowly Tennessee is hitting .273. Carolina's discipline at the plate has paid off, though, resulting in a .375 on base percentage ( good for 5th in the SEC but still well behind Arkansas' .430 clip). Moreover, the Gamecocks are tied with Vanderbilt for last in the SEC in hits (130).
This all paints a picture of team departing from Ray Tanner's usual style. This year's iteration of the Yardcocks has been praised for its ability to play small ball. The problem with small ball, while it harkens back to the nostalgic days of Abner Doubleday and the Boston Red Stockings, is that it's probably the worst strategy to employ in the offense-laden metal bat NCAA. The idea behind small ball is that you give up outs for bases. Your intuition should tell you that that's not a fair trade. Which one of those do you think is the scarcer commodity? The answer is unequivocally outs. USC's gambles against Ole Miss paid off only because of the Mississippi fielders' inability to field the bunts. When we're playing stiff competition in the post season, we can't count on that same kind of luck.
Now, some might point to the Mississippi series as an example of when small paid off. Upon closer inspection, however, it certainly didn't. What our bunting strategy did lead to in those games was a bunch of runners stranded on second and third base. That's exactly what you'd expect from a strategy that concedes 1/3 of your team's opportunity to score runs just to move a base runner to second. Indeed, leaving runners on base has been a huge problem for the Gamecocks this year. Fans of Derek Jeter might point to a lack of clutch hitting to explain this. However, any sabermetrician worth his salt will tell you that sacrifice bunting leads to a disproportionate amount of runners left on base. In fact, the data bear this out. USC is second in the SEC in sac. bunts at 16. Just about the only time the manager should put on the bunt sign is in the bottom of the 9th in a tie game. Even then it should probably only be done if the lead off batter hits a double. In this situation, the higher probability of scoring 1 run outweighs the high probability of scoring multiple runs (because 1 run ends the game).
If Carolina wants to have a chance at a championship, SEC or otherwise, it's going to need to get its hitters going. Up until this point, the fact that Ray Tanner has not had the same line-up in two different games practically the whole season has gotten a lot of play in the media. Tanner's gut instinct to start Parker Bangs against Auburn comes to mind as a time when that intuition paid off. While he's had some anecdotal success with this strategy, at mid-way through the SEC slate it is time start setting a permanent line-up. This team needs to develop an offensive rhythm heading down the home stretch.
Let's take a look at what USC's line-up should generally look like from here on out.
1. Whit Merrifield (OF) - This kid is probably the most under-appreciated player on the team. All he has done is lead the Gamecocks in home runs and RBIs for most of the season. Oh yeah, and he also broke the school record for consecutive games with a hit.
2. Jackie Bradley, Jr. (OF) - Probably the most exciting player on the Gamecocks squad. He has struggled a little bit lately, but he's still hitting .333. If the Gamecocks are going to compete, we're going to need him to return to his All-American form from last season.
3. Evan Marzilli (OF) - This kid is one of the fasted I've seen in a Gamecock uniform. I saw him fly around the bases during the Brown series, and I thought he was going to lose his shoes. He also leads the team in batting average (.355), but has just 31 at-bats. His .487 OBP makes him an ideal player to put in front of the clean-up batter.
4. Jeffrey Jones (1B) - Jones did one heck of a job filling in for Nick Ebert to start the season. Tanner hasn't given him as much playing time as I think he deserves because he's been trying to find at-bats for Christian Walker, Nick Ebert, and Brady Thomas. Jones is hitting .338 with 5 HRs and 24 RBI in just 74 at-bats. Time for Tanner to start drinking the Jonestown Kool-aid, if you know what I mean.
5. Nick Ebert (DH) - Nick had a terribly slow start but is coming on strong recently. He has committed 2 errors to Jeffrey Jones' none, so he gets the DH spot.
6. Kyle Enders/ Brady Thomas (C) - It's hard to pick between these two guys. They're hitting .290/.333 with 16/17 RBI, respectively. Thomas' number are a little bit better, but Kyle Enders appears to be the better catcher defensively. It's a toss up, really. I'd probably start Thomas and replace him with Enders in the later innings if we're up.
7. Robert Beary (3B) - Beary is hitting .272, 12 points better than our other option at third of Adrian Morales. Beary's fielding percentage is currently 1.000% compared with Morales' .927, so I'll have to give the nod to Beary here.
8. Bobby Haney (SS) - Together with Scott Wingo, Bobby Haney makes up probably the best double-play tandem in the SEC. Tanner says its the best combination he's ever coached. Haney has the range and athleticism to be a top notch SS at any level. That's good news for Haney, who is hitting a wretched .194 with an even more wretched .221 OBP. Unfortunately, we don't really have any other options at SS. Haney's hitting isn't likely to improve drastically moving forward, but his glove has helped keep us in more than a few games. Hopefully he'll be able to figure a few things out before the post season starts.
9. Scott Wingo (2B) - There can't be a better feel-good story than Scott Wingo this year. Last year Wingo was in Haney's position - struggling at the plate but contributing on the field. This year he came out of the gate hammering the ball and hasn't looked back. Right now he's hitting .320 and leading the team in home runs (8). What's even more amazing is that he's done it from the 9 hole. If Miles Davis made peeing your pants cool, Scott Wingo has made hitting out of the 9 spot super fly. He's also continuing on his journey to become the most beamed man in history, with 10 hit-by-pitches so far this season. That stat has bolstered his OBP to a team high .489.
This line-up still leaves us with one hell of a bench for pinch hitting, running, and defensive switches. I bet you most teams in the league would love to have a guy like Christian Walker sitting on the bench ready to pinch hit or Adam Mathews to take the base paths for the catcher. Mathews, it should be noted, has a made strong case for playing time as well. I wonder if he's ever played short stop... And then of course there is Parker Bangs, currently hitting .314. The list seemingly goes on forever.
Ray Tanner certainly has some tough decisions to make. However, if he's going to get the best out of this team, I think he needs to let guys develop some level of comfort in the batting order. He has a lot of guys that could contribute on most any team in the SEC, but we only have 9 spots in the batting order. I wouldn't want to be Ray Tanner making out a line-up card coming down the home stretch of the SEC schedule. Then again, with the kind of talent he has to choose from, maybe I would.
South Carolina has put together a strong season so far, but I don't think we've shown that we're a top eight national seed yet. The team is hitting just .291 (.269 SEC) - not the mark of a championship caliber team. I'm far from saying that USC is incapable of winning a championship this year, SEC or otherwise, just that they haven't shown me that ability yet. Heck, USC's pitching appears to be good enough to keep us in most any game. Some praise should be heaped upon both Mark Calvi and Ray Tanner for this fact. Calvi because he has taken a lot of flak on account of his pitchers the past few years and Tanner because of his faith in his pitching coach.
As we sit right now, though, I see Carolina hosting a Regional, but not a Super Regional. I see Carolina losing in the Super Regional to a team like GA Tech, that seems to really be on its game right now. I think it's possible, given our remaining games, that USC wins the SEC regualr season title. Winning the SEC tournament, though - a feat that requires more than two starting pitchers - seems unlikely at this point.
Then again, there is still plenty of hope. The Gamecocks travel to UGA this weekend, Three days is Athens could raise any team's AVG. 15 points. And like I said, if this team ever gets hot at the plate again, watch out. We're talking Omaha material.