The South Carolina Gamecocks (26-6, 10-2 SEC) will host the Vanderbilt Commodores (31-1, 10-2 SEC) this weekend in a series that will pit the number 3 and 1 teams in the country against each other. The Commodores enter the weekend toting an 11-game winning streak while the Gamecocks are coming off their first loss in ten tries. That loss, to a woeful Citadel (13-20, 7-11 SoCon), has been the source of much consternation and hand-wringing among Gamecock fans since Tuesday.
Steven Neff (2-1, 2.88 ERA) pitched 3.1 innings in his first start since injuring his should a couple of weeks ago. Neff was on a pitch count - less than 60 - but allowed 2 earned runs on 2 hits while walking 1 and striking out 0. Bryan Harper, Jose Mata, and John Taylor combined to deny The Citadel any more runs on the night. Neff and the bullpen pitched a fine game, but he real story on Tuesday night was USC's offense - or lack there of. The Gamecocks failed to plate a run for the first time since the 2010 SEC Tournament. Despite out-hitting The Citadel 7-8 and stranding 11 runners on base, the Gamecocks are taking some heat for not employing "small ball" strategy in the 7th inning.
This is an argument I find perplexing given that the Gamecocks were down 2 runs in 7th inning and "small ball" is essentially designed to plate 1 run an inning. It is more perplexing, still, given that the Gamecocks failed to plate a run in both the 3rd and 6th innings. In the third inning USC sacrificed Mooney to advance Payne to 2nd base, but the next two batters failed to drive in a run. In the 6th inning Wingo led off with a double, and the 'Cocks similarly failed to score a run. So, even assuming that Beary had managed to lay down a successful bunt in the 7th inning instead of grounding into a double play, there's no guaranteeing that the Gamecocks would have scored a run.
So what's really going on here? It would appear that Occam's Razor could be used to great effect when it comes to the Gamecocks' offense. We're just not a great hitting team right now. Whether you're talking "small ball" or "Money Ball," the bottom line is that the Gamecocks failed to record hits when it mattered most. And if I had to characterize this team - and last year's championship team, too - with one phrase, I'd say that they have always excelled at gutting out hits when their backs are against the wall. In statistics we would call this "randomness." In sports we call this "luck." So on Tuesday night, the Gamecocks suffered from a dearth of luck, nothing more. You can be sure that USC will win many more games and lose a few, too. Ray Tanner put it best:
"I've been concerned with our offense for a long time," coach Ray Tanner said. "We're just not an offensive juggernaut."
Keep in mind that the Gamecocks were missing 3B Adrian Morales and DH Jake Williams, a pair of hitters that combined for 62 hits and 39 RBI on the season. Williams won't be seeing the lineup any time soon, but the re-addition of Morales should give the 'Cocks a boost in the run department this weekend. The Gamecocks will need Morales' bat to overcome a severe statistics deficiency in the hitting department. As a team, USC is batting .290 (8th SEC), with a .390 OBP% (6th SEC) as compared with Vanderbilt at .315 (1st) and .413 (1st), respectively. Their saving grace has been a SLG% of .456 (1st SEC). Carolina also leads Vanderbilt in walks 141 (2nd) to 133 (T3rd) and in home runs 30 (1st) to 12 (11th). For those of you lamenting USC's recent departure from "small ball" you'll be unhappy to learn that Vanderbilt leads Carolina in the SAC bunt department 39 (2nd) to 30 (6th). For those of us that like getting free outs, this is sweet music.
But Carolina, as Gamecockrock deftly pointed out earlier in the week, possesses advantages of its own, at least on paper. USC leads the SEC in virtually all meaningful pitching categories: ERA, opposing batting average, hits allowed, and runs allowed. However, the gap between USC and VU on the defensive side is not as great as the one between the two schools on offense. It will be interesting to see who prevails and if either team can score more than 3 runs in a game. The Gamecocks (#4 RPI) lead the all-time series with Commodores (#7 RPI) by a 45-19 margin.