Unlucky in Kentucky: Wildcats sweep the defending champs

The Gamecocks lost a trio of tight ball games in Lexington this weekend as the upstart Kentucky Wildcats (21-0, 3-0) shocked the nation by sweeping Ray Tanner's squad. Kentucky outscored the Gamecocks (15-4, 0-3) by a total of 14-9 in a series that highlighted South Carolina's desperate need to find some production at the plate.

As we mentioned in the weekend preview, the Kentucky offense has been among the best in the country, and the Gamecock pitching staff did a pretty decent job in limiting them to just 4.67 runs to game. But, as John Whittle pointed out on his Twitter feed, one of the keys to the series was the dominance of the Kentucky bullpen:

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That 5 ER difference accounts for the run differential in the series. In fact, the bullpen blew leads in each of the three games. The Gamecock bullpen has been utterly dominant in every other series so far this year, so this was a bit of a surprise. I don't expect it to be a problem going forward, and we probably wouldn't even be having this conversation if South Carolina had been able to come up with just a few more big hits in key moments. (Although Ethan Carter's arrest for "drunkenness" and subsequent suspension don't help matters.)

Matt Price pitched into the seventh inning for the first time this season but only recorded one out and ended up being charged with the two runs that put Kentucky ahead for good. His line for the day was 5 K, 3 BB, 7 H, 3 HBP, 4 RA. Sure, one of those walks was and runs came from an IBB, but this was not an incredibly effective outing for Mr. Price. And as we looked across at Kentucky and their ability to effectively end a game whenever they decided to bring in Trevor Gott, I couldn't help but wonder if Ray Tanner might have begun to long for the days where we could shorten any game by just finding a way to get the ball into Matt Price's hands.

The Gamecocks actually outhit the Wildcats 31-26 despite getting swept. The stats-based school of thought would suggest that the distribution of those hits will eventually even out in such away that a few more runs will be driven in and a tightly fought series like this one could easily swing in our favor in the future. Another school of thought might be that the Gamecocks just aren't as "clutch" as they've been in the past couple of years. Personally, I think it's a combination of the former and the fact that this team just isn't as good at hitting baseballs as the 2010 and 2011 editions were.

I think the outcomes will improve as we get into the season and Ray Tanner gets more settled on a starting lineup. The discovery of Erik Payne at second base has been huge. The sophomore had another excellent weekend, going 6 for 11 with a homerun to bring his season line to .419/.441/.710.

Joey Pankake appears to have grabbed back at least a share of the starting shortstop role. He got the start in the place of Connor Bright on both Saturday and Sunday after coming in as a defensive replacement late in Friday's loss. He made a couple of nice plays, including a running catch in shallow center that likely saved a run or two. He hasn't developed a lot of power yet, but a shortstop who can get on base at a .375 clip is something that this team could really use, so it's good that he seems to have gotten past some of those early season jitters in the field.

That leaves the only offensive sinkholes as right and left field, where Adam Matthews is having an unexpectedly putrid senior campaign (.200/.286/.273) and Tanner English is hitting a "meh" (.282/.338/.324). That wouldn't be a terrible line for a guy playing up the middle, but you need some power production from your corner outfield spots. There have, however, been some positive signs with English, as he did not strike out once in ten plate appearances this weekend. He still leads the team with 15 Ks, but it is encouraging that his approach seems to be maturing as the season wears on.

Getting swept in Lexington puts South Carolina's back against the wall heading into a home series with Florida next weekend. (This week, keep an eye on whether Gator ace Karsten Whitson will be ready to go. He's been sidelined with an arm injury for the better part of a month.) The Gamecocks have dug themselves a sizable hole by starting out 0-3 in the SEC, but this is a team that should improve as we get deeper into the season, and - as we've learned with this program so many times before - all we really need to do is get to the postseason.

The Florida series begins on Thursday after games on consecutive days against Furman and Wofford. The Furman game will be played at Fluor Field in Greenville. It will be interesting to see how/if playing games on five consecutive days affects the Gamecock pitching staff.

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