After losing to both Charleston Southern and The Citadel this week, South Carolina will face Auburn on the road to begin the second half of SEC play. South Carolina's rankings vary across the major polls from 6th (USA Today coaches' poll) to 15th (Collegiate Baseball) and Auburn is unranked. South Carolina is 41-19 against Auburn all-time. The Gamecocks have won 10 of the last 12 meetings between the two teams, including the last eight games. The Tigers have not won a series against the Gamecocks since 1997.
Halfway through conference play, the SEC is still clearly very strong, but difficult to figure out. The handful of teams at the top and the bottom of the standings is getting more consistent, but there isn't much separation and the middle of the league is still nearly impossible to sort out. In the East, Florida has taken sole possession of the lead with a 9-6 record. The Gamecocks (8-7) are next, followed by Georgia (7-7) with Kentucky and Vandy tied at 7-8 and Missouri and Tennessee tied in last at 6-9. In the West, Alabama (10-5) is still on top, followed by Ole Miss (9-6) and LSU (8-6). Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M are all tied at 7-8 and Auburn (6-9) is last.
Auburn is 21-17 and enters this weekend's series on a losing streak. After losing Saturday and Sunday's games at Alabama, the Tigers lost to Samford on Tuesday night. Auburn opened SEC play with series wins against both Texas A&M and Tennessee. However, the Tigers then lost the series against Missouri, got swept by Ole Miss, and lost last weekend's rivalry series. Auburn is hitting .287 with an on-base percentage of .376. They have an ERA of 2.94, opponents are hitting .243 against them, and their strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.28.
The Gamecocks, now 28-9, enter the weekend on their first four-game losing streak since 2009. The past week has been a disheartening one for the Gamecocks as they lost the final two games against Florida by blowing late leads, then lost two midweek games against teams they should have been able to beat. Coach Holbrook said after Wednesday's loss that the team's confidence has been shaken by the recent slump and that they need the feeling of winning again. The Gamecocks are hitting .282 with a .357 on-base percentage. The team ERA is now 2.08, which drops the Gamecocks down to 4th in the country in ERA. Opponents are hitting .219 against them. South Carolina's strikeout-to-walk ratio is 3.13, which is good for 8th in the country.
After beginning SEC play with a couple of rough appearances, South Carolina's Friday night starter Jordan Montgomery has had great performances in his last few starts. The junior left-hander was fantastic against Florida last week and will take the mound against Auburn with a 3.48 ERA and a team-leading 55 strikeouts and 18 walks. Senior right-handed pitcher Dillon Ortman will get the start for the Tigers. He has an ERA of 2.20 with 43 strikeouts and nine walks. On Saturday sophomore left-hander Jack Wynkoop will start for the Gamecocks. He has a 2.33 ERA and, with 44 strikeouts and eight walks, has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.5) of the three weekend starters. Auburn's Saturday starter will be freshman right-hander Keegan Thompson. His ERA is 1.72 and he has 51 strikeouts and 15 walks on the season. Freshman right-handed pitcher Wil Crowe will start for the Gamecocks on Sunday. Crowe has an ERA of 2.13 and has 33 strikeouts and 10 walks this season. Sophomore right-hander Trey Wingenter will start opposite Crowe. He has a 1.93 ERA with 22 strikeouts and six walks.
Injuries will continue to be a problem for the Gamecocks against Auburn. Max Schrock has now missed playing time for a variety of reasons: he injured his ankle earlier in the season, he's been fighting a virus the last week or so, and has a back injury that is bothering him. Schrock started at 3rd base Wednesday, but had to leave the game. Coach Holbrook said after the game that it's possible that Schrock is out for the remainder of the season. Joey Pankake has a strained hamstring and is questionable for the weekend, but there is a chance that he will play. Marcus Mooney has a concussion and is not likely to play this weekend. Connor Bright, who has a hyperextended elbow, is also unlikely to play in the Auburn series. The latest in the string of Gamecock injuries is relief pitcher Vince Fiori. Fiori pulled a muscle in Wednesday night's game and will not be available to pitch this weekend. Fiori's loss is a blow for the Gamecocks; he is the only Gamecock pitcher with a significant amount of work (16 innings in 13 appearances) that still has not allowed an earned run.
In much more cheerful news, the players have adopted a new mascot that they appear to be using as a rallying point. Grayson Greiner tweeted a picture Thursday afternoon of a bunny named Byron that he and his roommates now own. Byron made the trip to Auburn with his new family and already has his own twitter account. Many of the players on twitter are openly endorsing Byron as a source of inspiration. This situation bears an obvious parallel to the 2012 season when LB Dantzler took his pet fish with him to Auburn and the team had a big offensive weekend and got a series sweep. Reptar then became an unofficial mascot and rallying point for the team for the remainder of the season. While the circumstances surrounding Byron's debut with the team are much more deliberate, he will hopefully have a similar positive effect on the team.
Game 1, Friday Start time: 7 p.m. Location: Auburn, Alabama (Plainsman Park) TV: None
UPDATE: Friday's game has been rained out. There will be a doubleheader on Saturday with Game 1 beginning at 12 p.m. Game 2 will be played at 5 as scheduled.
Game 2, Saturday
Start time: 5 p.m.
Location: Auburn, Alabama (Plainsman Park)
TV: CBS Sports Network
Game 3, Sunday
Start time: 2 p.m.
Location: Auburn, Alabama (Plainsman Park)
TV: CSS (Also streamed live on ESPN3)
All three games will also be available on the radio at 107.5 The Game