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Weekend Preview: Gamecocks host LSU, fate of SEC hangs in the Balance

Christian Walker (foreground) has been the Gamecocks' most consistent player in the 2012 campaign.
Christian Walker (foreground) has been the Gamecocks' most consistent player in the 2012 campaign.

OK, so that headline might be a little embellished, but not by much. This weekend your South Carolina Gamecocks (38-13, 17-9 SEC) will host the LSU Tigers (40 -13, 17-10 SEC) in a three-game series beginning on Thursday. Either team could hoist the SEC regular season trophy after this weekend, but they'll have to best Kentucky's SEC-leading 18-9 league record to do so.

Few teams in the country are hotter than the Gamecocks right now. Led by a handful of clutch performances, a softer schedule, and a little bit of good luck to even out the bad, the Gamecocks have won 14 of their last 19 contests -- opponents stole 3 while mother nature claimed the remaining two. They continue to come up with wins in spite of not being particularly extraordinary at any one aspect of the game. The Gamecocks rank 8th in the league in batting average (.275), 6th in slugging percentage (.407), and 7th in on-base percentage (.365). Even the pitching, which has carried the 'Cocks to two straight national championships has been underwhelming. In 462 innings pitched Gamecocks hurlers have posted a combined 3.18 ERA (3rd SEC). However, the one category USC leads the league in happens to one of the most predictive -- opposing batting average at .223. Other than that, this team looks pretty marginal on paper.

In fact, the current iteration of the Garnet and Black is developing a uniquely "Gamecockian" character. While the championship teams of 2010 and 2011 had their well-documented eccentricities, they were grounded with the traditional hallmarks of a championship baseball team -- pitching, defense, and fundamentals. This year, very little of that foundation has remained while the mythos of a quirky team that refuses to lose has taken center stage. The Gamecocks may lead the league in fielding percentage (.980), but that figure doesn't include the numerous, sometimes nightly, base running errors and other mental gaffes that we've seen throughout the year. What's more, the 'Cocks are tied for 6th through 8th in the SEC in double plays fielded (41) when just last year they led the league by a wide margin.

If you're the type of person that can only be comforted by statistics, though, (and believe, I'm one of you), then I would point towards the 'Cocks reverence for the long ball -- both their ability to launch it and their willingness to give it up -- as primary reasons they've been able to claw their way back to the top. USC currently sits at 3rd in the SEC in home runs (38). This is a departure from the Ray Tanner Teams we have grown accustomed to since the end of the so-called "gorilla ball" era three years ago. It's not as if the team has given up on small ball, though. The Gamecocks are 3rd in the SEC in Sac. bunts (50) and 2nd in Sac. flies (30). Alternatively, USC has allowed the 3rd most home runs (32) and sac bunts (32) in the league, but have been extra stingy with Sac flies (8). The team appears incapable of finding the middle ground.

If nothing else, Ray Tanner has leveraged the team concept to the hilt. Star pitcher Michael Roth has come back down to an earthly 2.60 ERA and a 5-0 record after posting 1.06 and 14-3 marks in 2011. Studly closer Matt Price has seen his ERA balloon over prior year, from 1.83 to 3.72. On the offensive side of the ball Christian Walker is still humming along with .343 average and .556 slugging percentage. However, senior Adam Matthews, to whom we were looking to solidify a lineup studded with newcomers, has dropped from a .264 hitter in 2011 to a sophomore-Scott-Wingo level .214. Meanwhile, the team is getting solid contributions from freshman Tanner English (.315 Avg.), JuCo transfer LB Dantzler (43 RBI), freshman Grayson Greiner (31 RBI), and freshman pitchers Joel Seddon (.164 b/Avg.) and Jordan Montgomery (4-1 W-L). It's truly been a team effort this year.

Along the way USC has risen to #2 in Baseball America's rankings and #8 in the NCAA's official RPI. For comparison LSU claims the #9 and #7 spots, respectively. Speaking of the Tigers, they've got quite a specimen in Raph Rhymes (pronounced Raif). This guy has a batting average (.476) that has only recently slipped this side of .500. The Tigers lead the league in batters struck out (470) and runs batted in (318), but also in double plays grounded into (40). For what it's worth, South Carolina ranks 5th (421), 8th (263), and 12th (24) in those categories, respectively.

The Tiger are expected to start Kevin Gausman (8-1, 2.95) and Aaron Nola (6-3, 3.86) against Michael Roth (5-0, 2.60) and Forrest Koumas (2-2, 5.40) on Thursday and Friday, respectively. They'll throw Ryan Eades (5-2, 3.75) on Saturday against whichever Gamecocks pitcher whose arm hasn't yet fallen off. All three games are in Columbia, and all three games are televised. LSU leads the all-time series 29-21-1.

Go 'Cocks!