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Weekend Preview: The Best Rivalry in College Baseball Resumes

Joey Pankake can tell you about living right. The short stop from Easley, SC was drafted in the 42nd round by the Texas Rangers out of high school. He spurned the professional leagues to come to Columbia where he is starting this season for the South Carolina Gamecocks as a true freshman. Through seven games he's batting .273 and slugging .500.

On Tuesday he knocked his first round tripper out of the park at Carolina Stadium in front of a crowd of 6,521. A home run that, it should be said, was the deciding score in the win against Presbyterian. Oh, and did I mention that Tuesday was also National Pancake day?

That's right, they guy with the best baseball name this side of Houston Street already has a day dedicated to his greatness. Or at least the greatness of his namesake. (Quick aside here, folks, but Joey Pankake - as great a name as it clearly is - just begs to be made into a multitude of only-in-baseball nick names. Here are a few of my favorites I've come up with so far: Kangaroo Flapjack, 'Kake Mix, Aunt Ja-high-fly-ma, Baron Von Waffles, The McGriddles Kid.) He confirmed to more than a few giddy reporters at the post-game press conference that, "yes," he did, in fact, stop by the IHOP on Assembly for a free short stack (also a great nick name) that morning. That's what it's like being Joey Pankake on National Pancake Day. The world is your oyster. Your sticky, syrupy oyster.

More after the jump...

Pankake is just one in a long line a talented freshmen that have been making an impact for Ray Tanner's baseball teams over the last decade. The South Carolina Gamecocks (7-0) are one of four undefeated teams in the SEC East. That perfect record appeared to be in jeopardy Tuseday night when, through three innings, the Gamecocks were tied at 1 with the Presbyterian Blue Hose (0-8). Pankake's solo shot in the fourth inning was all the Gamecock pitching needed to preserve the win -- and both teams' perfect records. Fellow freshman Jordan Montgomery (0-0, 1.80 ERA) got the start for the Gamecocks. Montgomery pitched well after a shaky first in which he gave up two hits, a run, and plunked a batter before a double play (featuring Baron Von Waffles) ended the inning. Montgomery's line from the game - 4.0 IP, 4H, 1ER, 1SO, and 0BB - is encouraging to say the least. Nolan Belcher (1-0, 0.00 ERA) and Ethan Carter (1-0, 0.00 ERA) each pitched 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball in relief. Tyler Webb (1-0, 0.00 ERA) recorded the final out and the save.

The real story, which I have so deftly buried, though, is the looming weekend series with the Clemson Tigers (4-2). Even though Clemson is a team most widely known for the sphincter-like nature of its esophageal region (they choke, folks), the Tigers are still a dangerous team. Clemson ace Kevin Brady (0-0, 0.90 ERA) has pitched well enough to win the last two Fridays, but the Clemson offense couldn't power over scrappy UAB and Maine squads. In 10 innings Brady has allowed only 1 earned run, 8 hits, and two bases on balls. Saturday starter Dominic Leone (2-0, 3.27 ERA) has fared far better in the luck department. In 11 innings Leone has struck out 10, walked 4, and allowed 4 earned runs but has still recorded half of the Clemson victories. Sunday starter David Haselden (0-0, 3.86) has struggled so far this year. In seven innings of work the senior from Spartanburg has given up 12 hits, 2 bases on balls, and struck out 4. Interestingly, it's sophomore Kevin Pohle (2-0, 0.00) in a long relief roll who has recorded the Tigers' other two victories.

As a team the Tigers hold an ERA of 2.83 and an exceptionally high batting average against of .290. Most good college teams have a batting average against hovering around .230. What success they can boast is probably due to there offense more than anything. Clemson is hitting .285 as a team, but that number is deceptive given that Jon McGibbon's individual stat is .067. He has started all six games for the Tigers. They're led by senior catcher Phil Polh who is hitting .476 and slugging .857. Richie Shaffer isn't far behind with .364 and .727 marks, respectively. By comparison, the Gamecocks starters with the highest averages are Christian Walker (.381) and Evan Marzilli (.357). TJ Costen (.375) and Kyle Martin (.364) are the other notable averages in the line up for the Gamecocks, but each has only started 3 of the 7 games.

Ray Tanner has been tinkering with the line up since opening day. As late as Tuesday Tanner said who would start at second base was anyone's guess. The rotation of Chase Vergason, TJ Costen, and Connor Bright has proven mostly effective. Costen has the most impressive batting average right now, but with only 8 at bats he has a long way to go before cementing himself in the line up. I'm sure fielding percentage is playing a role in Tanner's decision as well, though Costen and Bright only have one error a piece to Vergason's none. Complicating matters further is Adam Matthews' struggles at the plate. In 19 at bats Matthews is hitting only .158 on the season. Tanner has already inserted Costen into the left field slot on a couple of occasions. If Vergason can get his bat going we might be seeing more of Costen in the outfield while Adam Matthews tunes up his swing.

One thing we do know is the starting pitchers for the weekend. The trio of Michael Roth (1-0, 0.69), Matt Price (1-0, 1.80), and Colby Holmes (2-0, 0.00) has been effective, if not brilliant so far this year. In fact, the Gamecocks lead the league in ERA (0.86), opposing batting average (.112), and hits allowed (23). By the way, second place in the SEC for hits allowed goes to Georgia with 49. It's safe to say that no one in the SEC is pitching better than the Gamecocks right now.

This series is always a hard-fought one. Considering what's at stake I don't see why this weekend should be any different. Clemson's pitching appeared to be the real deal in their first series with UAB. Last year the Blazers finished the season right around .500 and ranked 74 in the RPI. Currently at 6-2, they're probably a pretty decent team this season. Maine is something of a different animal, though. They finished 2011 ranked 154 in the RPI. In their five games of the 2012 season they have beaten Clemson once and Florida A&M twice. Meanwhile the Gamecocks' two weekend opponents held RPI rankings of 91 and 47 at the conclusion of 2011. For those of you keeping score, that's an average of 114 RPI for Clemson opponents and 69 for USC opponents.

It's tough to say which way the Tigers' 37-24 run differential will sing this weekend. In the end, I'd go with the team that appears to have the better pitching staff. If we issue a few intentional walks to the red-hot Phil Pohl, I have to think we'll be able to limit what the Tigers can do at the plate. On the flip side, getting into Clemson's bull pen in game one will be a key to getting our bats going the rest of the series. While the Clemson pitching staff holds a 1.41 WHIP, the relievers alone hold a 1.54 mark. Comparatively, Carolina's staff owns a 0.57 WHIP while the relievers' WHIP is 0.49. A hallmark of this team's two championship runs has been the way Ray Tanner has managed his bullpen so effectively. If Clemson wants to do any major damage, they'll probably have to do so early.

This Carolina team seems so good where the Clemson Tigers seem suspect. I could hedge my bets by picking the most likely outcome of any series -- a 2-1 series victory for the Gamecocks -- but if you can't be bold on your own blog, what good are you? I rarely say this, but I honestly feel that Carolina will get the sweep this weekend.

The Tigers lead the all-time series with Carolina 168-125-2. First pitch is slated for Friday night at 6:00pm in Joe Riley Park in Charleston, SC.

Go 'Cocks!