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Weekend Preview: Gamecocks conquer UNC Asheville, Princeton comes to town

Christian Walker is leading the South Carolina Gamecocks' offense - Avg. (.316), RBI (13), slg% (.421), and ob% (.435).
Christian Walker is leading the South Carolina Gamecocks' offense - Avg. (.316), RBI (13), slg% (.421), and ob% (.435).

Your South Carolina Gamecocks (10-1, 0-0 SEC) will host yet another team of Tigers this weekend: the Princeton Tigers (2-2, 0-0 Ivy). That's Tiger team number two of four for those of you keeping score at home.

However, first the Gamecocks hosted UNC Asheville (7-7, 0-0 Big South) this past Wednesday. Ray Tanner was clearly utilizing this game to give the lesser-used portion of his staff some work. Freshman Joel Seddon (1-0, 0.00) got his first career start against the Bulldogs on Wednesday. He went 5.0 innings allowing 2 hits, 2 walks, no runs, and striking out 3. He was awarded his first career win. Junior Adam Westmoreland (0-0, 0.00) saw his first action of the year in relief of Seddon. The southpaw from Brookland-Cayce struck out 3 in two innings of work while allowing just 1 hit. After a promising freshman campaign Westmoreland sat out in 2010 due to Tommy John Surgery. He never quite made it back to form in 2011 (5.77 ERA), but it looks as though he might be putting it all together again this year. Westmoreland relinquished control to Freshman Vince Fiori (0-0, 13.5 ERA, 0.2 IP), who allowed a hit, 2 walks, and an earned run while recording one out. Junior Hunter Privette (0-0, 0.00) and senior Logun Munson (0-0, 0.00) combined to mop up the mess, with Munson getting the majority of the work. The pair were able to stop the bleeding in the eighth inning and the Gamecocks took the game by a score of 8-1. Munson is a senior who transferred to USC after spending two seasons with the UNC Tarheels. He saw limited action in 2011, but he could figure prominently into the relief role if he continues to perform strongly during mid-week games.

The Gamecocks pitching staff is formidable -- this we know. Through eleven games the team now holds an ERA of 1.70 (1st SEC) and an opposing batting average of .151 (1st SEC). South Carolina has allowed the fewest runs (23), earned runs (19), doubles (6), triples (0), and hits (53) of any team in the league. The Gamecocks have six pitchers with ERAs of less than 2.00 who have pitched at least 5 innings. This staff is talented, deep, and has a good mix of experience and youth. However, to date it has been the fielding and batting facets of the game that have raised concerns over whether 'Cocks can compete at the same level they have for the past two years.

The Gamecocks committed no errors against UNC Asheville, and that might be due in large part to the insertion of freshman Connor Bright at the short stop position. Bright, who had been competing for playing time at second base, took over for fellow freshman Joey Pankake. The Syrupy Slugger fell out of favor with Ray Tanner after committing 4 errors during the Clemson series last weekend. I have a feeling the switch was mainly due to Pankake's 4 errors, but was probably influenced by Bright out-hitting Pankake .308 to .265 as well. As for second base, JuCo transfer Chase Vergason (.158) filled in. I hate to see us trade a .265 average out of the line up for a .158 average, but Pankake's errors were costly in the Clemson series. With our bats being so anemic this year, we're going to need a strong defense behind our pitchers as we get ready for SEC play.

USC did manage to collect 8 runs off of 11 hits against UNC Asheville, improving their team average to .276. Evan Marzilli (.289), Tanner English (.293), Christian Walker (.316) and LB Dantzler (.262) each had multi-hit nights while Walker led the team with 3 RBI.

Meanwhile, Princeton is hitting .273 as a team. Four Tigers are hitting at or above .350 (Alec Keller - .556, Sam Mulroy - .389, John Mishu - .364, and Alex Fink - .357). The Tigers hold a team ERA of 6.09 and an opposing batting average of .262. Starter Zak Hermans (1-0, 0.00) earned the team's first win with five innings of work while not allowing a run. He struck out 8 in the Tigers' first game of the season against Florida Atlantic (the same Florida Atlantic team that swept Alabama on opening weekend). If Princeton is to get a win this weekend, their best chance may just be on Friday night, even though Hermans will be facing South Carolina ace Michael Roth (1-0, 0.89). Starters Matt Bowman (1-0, 4.50) and Kevin Link (0-1, 9.64) are less intimidating, however. Princeton concluded 2011 ranked a respectable 163 in the RPI, so this year's team is not likely to roll over for the two-time defending national champions.

The starting rotation will be the a familiar one for the Gamecocks: Michael Roth, Matt Price (1-0, 3.77), and Colby Holmes (2-0, 1.26). I would expect Ray Tanner to go to his bullpen early and often this series. While it looks like Princeton has a few guys who slap the ball around, I wouldn't expect them to enjoy as great of success against our elite pitching staff. Next week USC will begin SEC play against what is currently an undefeated Kentucky team. I doubt Ray Tanner will want his starters to go much past 100 pitches -- especially considering how many legitmate option we seem to have in the bullpen these days.

The bigger story will be to see if our offense can produce against the Princeton Tigers and if our defense and play against slightly better competition that UNC Asheville. If Connor Bright plays smart this week and is adequate at the plate, he'll have a chance to secure the short stop position going forward. Ray Tanner has shown in the past that he's willing to commit to a player who has performed well even when there are viable option on the bench. Specifically I'm thinking of Christian Walker's freshman year when Walker won the first base job from incumbent Nick Ebert and senior Jefferey Jones. It's not as if South Carolina will be hapless if their hitting doesn't improve drastically during the season. The pitching staff is probably good enough to carry the team to a Super Regional and maybe even to an SEC Tournament championship. However, teams that collectively bat .276 usually don't make it Omaha. Plenty of season left to play, though, folks.

South Carolina leads the all-time series with Princeton 3-1.

Go 'Cocks!