Weekend wrap-up: Gamecocks take 2 of 3 from Arkansas despite dropping Friday night match

Who will be South Carolina's hero this season? Steven Neff might be making a late run at it. Also, stop raising your hands, Whit Merrifield. You cannot answer my question. You are a professional baseball player.

This weekend's series between the South Carolina Gamecocks (41-11, 20-7 SEC) and the Arkansas Razorbacks (33-17, 13-14 SEC) was full of intrigue. The Gamecocks rallied after an early morning (1:00 am) loss to the Hogs on Saturday. USC is now in a three-way tie for first in the SEC with Florida and Vanderbilt. Thanks to some extra inning heroics by Florida's Mike Zunino, the Gators did Carolina the favor of defeating the Commodores two games to one this weekend. Carolina owns the tie breaker by virtue of their having taken series from both schools earlier in the season, but ties are only broken for purposes of SEC Tournament seeding. If none of the three teams pulls ahead after next weekend, they will share the regular season title. 

After a two hour rain delay, the Gamecocks got roughed up by the Arkansas batters and pitchers in game one. Michael Roth (10-2, 1.35 ERA) started out strong, but seemed to struggle more each successive inning. The trouble came to a head in the 4th inning when two throwing errors by catcher Brady Thomas helped Arkansas plate 2 runs. Roth would finish the night having pitched 5.1 innings, given up 10 hits, 3 runs, and striking out 5. Lest you be too hard on Roth, the loss was a team effort. The Gamecocks committed 5 errors, three care of Brady Thomas trying to catch runners stealing second. The USC offense collected 7 hits on the night, but that was only enough to scrape together 2 runs. Christian Walker, Adrian Morales, Jake Williams, and a resurgent Evan Marzilli all went hitless on the night. Even the umpires piled on with a couple of questionable calls. In short, it just wasn't the Gamecocks' night. Neither team played particularly well on the rain-soaked field, Arkansas had four errors of their own, but the Razorbacks seemed to get the hits when it mattered most.

Games 2 & 3 plus analysis after the jump.

The Gamecocks fared better in game two. Carolina jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning thanks to a Peter Mooney lead-off walk. Christian Walker followed with a single and recorded his only RBI of the series. Jake Williams reached first base on a throwing error two batters later and scored Walker from third. The Gamecocks rolled along behind Forrest Koumas (5-0, 3.17 ERA), whose line was good enough to give Carolina a chance to win. In 5.1 innings of work Koumas gave up 2 runs off of 7 hits, 4 walks, and struck out 6. USC carried a 5-3 lead into the 8th inning when a hit-by-pitched exacerbated a lead-off by Matt Price. A little small ball and some timely hitting from Dominic Ficociello tied the game from there. The Razorbacks may have broken the tie in the 9th if not for a Robert Beary strike to second base that caught Kyle Atkins stealing. I can only presume that Ray Tanner inserted Robert Beary at catcher after Brady Thomas sailed three balls into center field on Friday night. Thomas is a good catcher, but if Arkansas is going to run all weekend it's probably better not to tempt fate. The move paid off, as Arkansas was 4-6 stealing bases with Beary behind the plate opposed to 4-4 with Thomas. The Razorbacks would have have pushed the game into extra innings if not for Scott WIngo. As the first batter of Gamecock 9th, Wingo drove a ball over the right-center field wall to even the series. We'll have more on Wingo a bit later. 

After Saturday night's exciting victory there was still some question as to who would take the hill for the 'Cocks Sunday afternoon - Colby Holmes (5-2, 3.70 ERA) or Steven Neff (3-1, 2.45 ERA). As is usually the case, Ray Tanner seemed to channel a sixth sense when he opted to put Holmes on the mound and Neff in left field. Perhaps driven by the fact that there was even a question of who the Sunday starter would be, Colby Holmes pitched a phenomenal game. The Sophomore from Conway went 8.2 innings and didn't allow a run until a solo home run with two outs in the 9th inning. Holmes finished with 7 strike outs, 6 hits, 1 BB, and 1 HBP. Oh, and the win. The move seemed to work out for Neff as well. Neff had 3 hits on the afternoon, two of which were home runs. Over the weekend Neff raised his average to .306 and, with 3 HRs, is tied for 5th on the team.

The Gamecocks once again showed their resiliency as a team with a comeback series against a very dangerous Arkansas team. After loosing 3 straight SEC contests, the Gamecocks' chances of a regular season SEC title appeared to fading. However, now USC is poised to take the top seed in the SEC tournament and, with a little luck, even sole possession of the regular season title. Not to mention that national seed stuff. Ray Tanner's club has weathered substantial losses this season, starting with Nolan Belcher and most recently All-American Jackie Bradley, Jr. But Tanner always seems to find guys who not only plug holes, but excel in adversity. Steven Neff has found his swing and is shoring up the outfield alongside Evan Marzilli and Jake Williams. Neff, who had been focusing exclusively on pitching until about a month ago, is building a four-game hitting streak. And it's worth noting that 8 of his 11 hits this season have been for extra bases (5 doubles and 3 home runs).

Then, of course, there are the veteran ball players that are a hallmark of any Ray Tanner team. This year's man among men is Scott Wingo. Wingo has always had a penchant for getting on base, even when his average left something to be desired. In his freshman campaign he hit .230 but had a .438 on-base percentage thanks in large part to 17 hit-by-pitches. In 2009 his average dropped off considerably to .196, but he never wavered as blue-ribbon defensive second baseman. He rebounded in 2010 with a .247 average and helped Carolina earn it's first National Championship. This year Wingo is hitting .331 and leading the team in OB% (.466). His 2011 fielding percentage is .982, the highest of his four seasons. You have to sit back and marvel at a guy who has been a consistent positive presence for a team, even when he was grinding out at-bats in his sophomore campaign. He's gotten better every year he has been here, and it's no coincidence that you can say the same for this Carolina team. I'm looking forward to what Carolina's Neffs and Wingos will do once post-season play begins.

First, though, the Gamecocks will host UNC Asheville (15-33, 7-17 Big South) on Tuesday before traveling to Tuscaloosa for the final SEC series of the season. The Gamecocks own the all-time series with the UNC Asheville Bulldogs, 6-0.

 

Go 'Cocks!

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