I suppose the question ought to be, "Have the Gamecocks already caught fire?" After slicing through the Columbia regional three games to none, the South Carolina Gamecocks (43-17, 18-11 SEC) find themselves well-rested and focused for a weekend series with the Oklahoma Sooners. The Sooners (42-23, 13-10 Big 12), as you no doubt remember, were the last team to beat the 'Cocks in the post season -- way back in 2010. Since Jackie Bradley, Jr. stared down what could have been USC's last pitch of the 2010 season, Ray Tanner and company have brought two National Championships to Columbia.
It seems every year since 2009 Ray Tanner has been able to do more with less when it comes to pitching. In 2010 the Gamecocks could mount as solid a one-two punch as any in the country with starters Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson. Coming out of the bullpen was closer Matt Price backed up by a little-used sophomore 1B/LHP named Michael Roth. Jose Mata, Tyler Webb, John Taylor, Steven Neff, Jay Brown, Parker Bangs, Nolan Belcher, Colby Holmes, and Patrick Sullivan, rounded out the bench for good measure. Then in 2011 Carolina soldiered on less Cooper and Dyson, most notably. The Gamecocks' weekend rotation went from having two solid starters and a serviceable Sunday guy (Brown) to a guy with no regular season starting experience (Roth) and a freshman and sophomore (Koumas and Holmes). The coaches made the most of middle reliever John Taylor and continued to lean on closer Matt Price for outings of three or more innings. In the end, the result was more hardware for the halls of Carolina Stadium.
This year Tanner has a proven veteran in Roth, and not much else. Stalwart closer Matt Price has seen his effectiveness, like his velocity, dip in consecutive years, and 2011 starters Holmes and Koumas have both struggled at times. The bright spots are freshman tandem Jordan Montgomery (5-1, 4.05 ERA) and Evan Beal (4-4, 3.83 ERA). Montgomery has given Tanner another option for starter, which is crucial at this point in the season, while Beal has helped to alleviate some of the the pressure on Matt Price to be perfect every outing. Perhaps most fortuitous for the pitching staff this year has been the re-emergence of Tyler Webb as a reliable middle reliever. Webb (5-1, 2.01 ERA) has the lowest ERA of any Gamecocks pitcher with at least 10 innings pitched. He's third on the team in K/9 ratio at 9.28, behind only Evan Beal (9.96) and Matt Price (10.48). Price, by the way, ranks #22 in that category. Somehow they continue to get the job done week in and week out.
For his part, Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway isn't shying away from the budding stroy line. Says Golloway of Gamecocks 19-game winning streak, "I think that streak is outstanding. It’s long, and I think that we need to have something to say about it." Make no mistake about it, Oklahoma feels like it should have been the team to take home the 2010 National Title, and they'll be gunning for the Gamecocks come this weekend. As of May 29 the Sooners were ranked #29 in the NCAA RPI. The Gamecocks, meanwhile are ranked #11 in the RPI and #7 in Baseball America's most recent poll.
They'll have their chance to say something about the streak beginning Saturday night at 8:00pm. The Sooners will likely start red-shirt sophomore Jordan John (8-7, 2.26 ERA) against Gamecocks ace Michael Roth (6-1, 2.68 ERA). John has been coming on strong as of late for the Sooners. In two of the last three regular season series versus Oklahoma State and Baylor, John allowed 3 runs in eight innings of work and no runs in eight and two thirds innings of work, respectively. As a whole the Sooners staff just isn't a group that looks all that impressive on paper. They rank 64th among Division I teams in hits allowed per nine innings (USC #3), 62th in WHIP (USC #4), and 37th in ERA (USC #21). Stats are all well and good, but when it comes to OU's pitching staff I have to admit there is really only one thing I care about this weekend. If there is a Baseball God, and he is benevolent, he will allow us to witness OU's Damien Magnifico throw at least one pitch to USC's Joey Pankake.
Hitting is more of the same story for the Sooners. The team carried a combined average of just .265, placing them #215 among Division 1 teams. The Gamecocks' team batting average is a slightly more robust .271, good enough for #173. At the plate the Sooners are led by Junior center fielder Max White, who is hitting .339, slugging .449, and carrying a .407 on-base percentage. He's not much of a power threat with only 2 home runs on the season, but that's where freshman catcher Hunter Lockwood steps in. Lockwood is hitting only .250 but has knocked 11 round-trippers and owns a slugging percentage of .489. Meanwhile, Christian Walker (.319 AVG, .548 SLG%, .447 OB%) continues to lead the Gamecocks at the plate.
I wish I could throw out a prediction for the series, folks, but the truth of the matter is almost anything can happen in three-game series. I like the Gamecocks' chances considering what they've been able to accomplish already this season. I expect the home field advantage to come up big for us again (and I'm not talking about the umpires). The stats tell me that me that South Carolina is the wise bet to take the series, but when it comes down to it winning is all about making plays. I don't have the slightest confidence in my ability to tell the future, to be frank. That's a good thing, though, because my confidence lies in a team called the Gamecocks, a man named Ray Tanner, and a their collective ability to keep the streak alive!