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Weekend preview: #2 Gamecocks travel for last SEC series versus Alabama

Visual confirmation that Jackie Bradley, Jr. is, indeed, a giant.
Visual confirmation that Jackie Bradley, Jr. is, indeed, a giant.

Before traveling to Tuscaloosa this weekend, the #2 South Carolina Gamecocks (42-11, 20-7 SEC) hosted the UNC Asheville Bulldogs (15-34, 7-17 Big South) on Tuesday. A quick note before getting into Tuesday's game; don't forget that all the SEC series this week start on Thursday to provide for more rest before the SEC tournament. On Tuesday Steven Neff (3-1, 2.45 ERA) resumed pitching duties for the first time since... a while. The Junior from Lancaster took the hill for 3.2 innings before being pulled in favor of Patrick Sullivan. Neff struck out 3 but allowed 2 runs off of 4 hits. He appeared to struggle with his control as he also walked 2 batters and hit 1. After hitting a batter to lead off the 4th inning, Neff got two quick outs, but things unraveled quickly from there when he walked in a run after allowing a hit and another walk. That's when Ray Tanner brought in Patrick Sullivan (2-0, 1.40 ERA) to clean up the inning without further incident.  Tyler Webb (3-1, 2.84 ERA), in turn was brought in to clean up Sullivan's mess in the 5th inning, and he was replaced by Jose Mata (3-0, 1.88 ERA) in the 7th inning. Each Gamecock reliever was summoned from the bullpen with 2 outs on Tuesday night. Mata had the best night of the bunch. In 2.1 inning of work he gave up 3 hits, but allowed no runs, no walks, and struck out 2.

From just looking at the box score one might be surprised to learn that Carolina took the victory 9-5. After all, both teams had 10 hits, and Carolina committed 3 errors to Asheville's 2. More still, Asheville left 9 runners on base to USC's 7. Of course, the Gamecocks had fewer at-bats since they were the home team and had the lead heading into the 9th inning. Still, the major (non)statistical difference between the two clubs was Carolina's ability to get hits when it needed them. Likewise, USC had the pitching depth to rotate in quality guys when situations got dicey. Considering the weather continued the weekend trend of not cooperating and only weekend pitcher that saw action was Mata, it was still a good win for Carolina. And at this point, all that matters is recording the "W."

We'll take a look at the weekend series with Alabama after the jump.

Going into the last weekend of conference play things are about at close as they could be in the SEC West. The Alabama Crimson Tide (31-22, 13-14 SEC) are in a four-way tie for first place in the West with MSU, Auburn, and Arkansas. Ole Miss isn't far behind at 12-15, and even LSU at 11-16 still has a chance to make the SEC Tournament if things break the right way for them. In fact, the only teams mathematically out of the SEC Tournament right now are Tennessee (5-22) and Kentucky (7-20). Each of the West teams will be pushing hard to be included in the field of eight for the SECT, so I expect 'Bama to pull out all the stops in this weekend's series. On a side note, there's also a very slim possibility that none of the SEC West teams will finish with a winning record in the conference. I would love to see that happen, but since it requires Tennessee to take at least 2 from Auburn I'm not holding my breath.

Alabama comes in at #38 in the NCAA's RPI, quite a bit below the Gamecocks at #6. That places the Crimson Tide at 10th in SEC, ahead of only Kentucky (#114) and Tennessee (#127). Alabama's team ERA is 3.82 (5th SEC) and their opponent's batting average is .260 (6th SEC). For comparison, Carolina has a 2.72 ERA (2nd SEC) and .228 opponent's batting average (2nd SEC). The Tide's weekend rotation consists of pitchers Jonathan Smart (4-1, 2.21 ERA), Nathan Kilcrease (5-4, 3.74 ERA), and Adam Morgan (5-4, 3.89 ERA). Their numbers compare favorably to most other SEC rotations, but still fall short against USC's Michael Roth (10-2, 1.35 ERA), Forrest Koumas (5-0, 3.17 ERA) and Colby Holmes (5-2, 3.70 ERA).

However, the area where Carolina has a real advantage over 'Bama is in relief pitching. The Tide's three relievers with the most innings pitched, Taylor Wolfe (46.1), Tucker Hawley (45.1), and Trey Pilkington (39.0) have a combined .242 BAA. Carolina's three relief pitchers with the most innings pitched, John Taylor (50.1), Matt Price (37.1), and Jose Mata (28.2) combine for a .204 BAA. Getting to Alabama's starting pitching early very well may be the key to winning this series.

As is the problem with most of the mid-tier SEC squads (looking at you Arkansas and Ole Miss), the Crimson Tide is not a well-rounded team. While they rank in the upper half of the SEC in most pitching categories, there is a substantial drop-off when it comes to their hitting statistics. The Tide is 9th in the SEC in BA (.279) and 11th in SLG% (.383). They fare a little better in OB% at 8th (.369), but it's nothing to write home about. The Tide is led by senior catcher, Brock Bennett, who hails from Greater Atlanta Christian School in my neck of the woods. Bennett is hitting .366 but has no triples or home runs so far this season. For power, Alabama looks to a pair of juniors in outfielder Taylor Dugas and  infielder Jared Reaves. Dugas is hitting .337 and leads the team in doubles (18), triples (4), home runs (5) and SLG% (.537). Reaves is hitting .354 and leads the team in RBI (44).

The Gamecocks will begin their series on Thursday this weekend in order to allow for more rest time before the SEC Tournament. South Carolina and Alabama are tied all-time for the series record at 24-24. You can catch the Saturday afternoon game on CSS at 1:00 pm.


Go 'Cocks!