Erik Payne, probably belting his towering solo shot in Sunday's game. Photo courtesy of The Big Spur.
The Gamecocks' sweep of the Princeton Tigers had about as much intrigue as you could possibly expect from a pre-SEC tuneup series against an overmatched opponent. For one, Ray Tanner replaced his entire starting middle infield; Joey Pankake and Chase Vergason grabbed some bench, giving way to freshman Connor Bright and sophomore and erstwhile third baseman Erik Payne.
The combination was so effective that it appears Coach Tanner will stick with them for the foreseeable future. The Gamecocks committed zero errors this weekend on the heels of last week's eight error effort. The tandem was not only effective in the field but also at the plate, where Bright payed immediate dividends by driving in the game-winning run on an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth that plated Adam Matthews. Payne, however, had the stronger overall weekend at the dish, going 4/9 with a homerun in Sunday's game to pull his season line to .308/.308/.615.
The Gamecocks had 16 batters reach base in Friday's game, but only scored two runs. The first came when freshman DH/1B Kyle Martin turned on a lifeless fastball thrown right down the middle of the plate by Zak Hermans. (One can only wonder if Martin was humming Herman's Hermits' "I'm Into Something Good" as he trotted around the bases after taking Hermans out of the park.) Through his first 28 collegiate plate appearances, Martin is hitting .462/.500/.692. No one expects him to continue to produce at that level, but any contribution that he is able to make with his bat will be appreciated by a Gamecock lineup that will struggle to score runs at times this season.
Michael Roth had his best start of the season on Friday (8 2/3 IP, 10 K, 0 BB, 6 H, 1 RA) and came within two outs of pitching a complete game shutout. But Roth was removed from the game with two outs in the ninth inning following a pair of singles, a wild pitch, and a run scored on a groundout to short. Roth's ten strikeouts were a career high. Evan Beal came in to relieve Roth and struck out the only batter he faced to lock down the 2-1 victory. The freshman Beal seems to have grabbed a share of a closer-by-committee situation with Forrest Koumas and has now thrown 7 1/3 innings, with 11 K, 1 BB, 3 H, and 2 RA.
Oh by the way, Friday's was Ray Tanner's 700th win in the garnet and black. It's hard to believe the man's been in Columbia since 1997, and it's even harder to believe that 1997 was 15 years ago.
While the Tan-man's (yeah, I know) 700th victory was fueled by freshmen, it was the veterans stealing focus in his 701st, a 6-1 decision in the Saturday game. Matt Price rebounded from his worst start of the season with a much more controlled performance (6 K, 1 BB, 4 H, 1 RA) in which he successfully completed the sixth inning for the first time this season. Tyler Webb and Forest Koumas combined for 3 IP out of the bullpen with 3 K, 1 BB, 2 H, and 0 RA. Christian Walker went 3 for 4 with a walk, a double, and two RBI. Princeton's fielding errors helped pad the Gamecock lead, as only 4 out of the 6 Gamecock runs were earned.
Erik Payne and Colby Holmes were the stars of Sunday's 3-1 victory. Payne opened scoring in the bottom of the third with a towering solo shot to left field off of Princeton's Matt Bowman. He also scored the game's final run with an RBI double hit down the third base line in the bottom of the seventh.
Holmes' final line on Sunday (5 IP, 6 K, 1 BB, 4 H, 0 RA) was very similar to Matt Price's the day before. After Holmes left the game, the bullpen combined for 9 K, 0 BB, 2 H, and 1 RA in 4 IP. Beal came in to relieve Koumas and close out the game, so it appears as though Tanner is willing to be as flexible with the back end of the bullpen as he is with the middle infield.
Overall, it was another insanely good weekend for Gamecock pitching: 27 IP, 35 K, 3 BB, 18 H, 3 RA. Their showing at the plate was better than it has been, but stil not as good: 27 H, 16 BB, 11 R. The overall batting line for the season is .278/.361/.408, which isn't exactly great, considering SEC play has not yet begun. (For context, that triple slash line is comparable to one of Juan Pierre's better season's.) There were some signs of encouragement, however, with Erik Payne looking like he could bring a potent bat to the second base spot, which we could use since we've got a corner outfielder in Tanner English who is slugging .278.
Next weekend the Yardcocks begin SEC play on the road in Lexington, KY. The Wildcats have played sixteen games this year and have won each of them. But don't sleep on the pair of midweek games. The Gamecocks host Charleston Southern on Tuesday and Appalachian State on Wednesday. The Mountaineers recently took two out of three from LSU.