South Carolina ended the regular season with a series against Vandy that included one of the most exciting games of the season, one of the least enjoyable games of the season, and a series finale with a late-inning rally that led to a Gamecock victory. In short, it was a fitting final series for a regular season that had a lot of ups and downs and no shortage of excitement and suspense. The Gamecocks began the year with a 16-game winning streak that included nine shutouts, hit the conference schedule and racked up some great wins and a few unpleasant losses (including an ugly five-game losing streak in mid-April), and finished strong on the road against an excellent Vanderbilt team.
In the meantime the Gamecocks dealt with what can only be explained as a series of curses from angry baseball deities. Some of the highlights of the regular season's horrendous injury luck include one of the best hitters on the team having three separate injuries/illnesses, an already sick infielder taking a baseball to the face during batting practice, and multiple occasions when at least a third of the original starting lineup was out at the same time. Despite all of that, the Gamecocks finished the season 42-14 (18-12 SEC) and are well-positioned to make a strong push for a national seed with a good performance at the SEC Tournament this week.
There are projections and analysis from many different sources relating to where South Carolina stands in regard to getting a national seed in the NCAA tournament. The general consensus is that the SEC is likely to get one more national seed, and that Ole Miss and South Carolina are close to even in the race for it with Vandy slightly behind them despite having a higher RPI. The closeness of the competition right now means that each team's performance in Hoover will likely influence the seeding. Earning or not earning a national seed does not necessarily dictate whether a team advances to the College World Series, but the road to Omaha is a little easier for any team that can guarantee another weekend at home by winning their regional.
In summary, what happens in Hoover this week has the potential to have a big impact on the NCAA tournament. That presents a bit of a problem as far as South Carolina is concerned because the Gamecocks do not have a history of playing well in Hoover. This season marks a decade since the last time the Gamecocks actually had a winning record in the tournament, which was when they won it in 2004. Since that season Carolina is 8-18 in the tournament. The Gamecocks have gone just 2-8 in Hoover in the last four seasons. That means that South Carolina has won just as many national titles in the past four seasons as games in the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks have only won multiple games in the SEC tournament six times since joining the conference in 1992; six also happens to be the total number of trips the team has made to the College World Series in that same time period.
There has certainly been frustration from people around the program concerning the sub-par play in the SEC tournament. However, that frustration has usually been quelled by the fact that, especially in the last few seasons, the team has bounced back from poor showings in the SEC tournament to have a great deal of success in the NCAA tournament. It can still be hoped though, that this is the year that Carolina will finally have a good showing in both tournaments.
Game 1: Vs. Mississippi State
By virtue of being the 4th seed in the tournament, the Gamecocks got a bye during the first round, which was single-elimination. South Carolina will play in their first game of the week tonight, but it's the eighth game of the tournament (here's the bracket). Georgia was eliminated in a 10-inning game late last night, setting the Gamecocks up for a matchup with the 5th-seeded Bulldogs of Mississippi State. South Carolina is 36-29 all-time against the Bulldogs, but only 1-7 against them in the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks opened last year's tournament with a 5-3 loss to Mississippi State. Entering their first game of the postseason the Gamecocks have a batting average of .283 and an on-base percentage of .363. The team ERA is 2.15, with opponents hitting .223 against them.
Whether Max Schrock or Connor Bright will play is questionable, but it would not be surprising to see either one of them. The starting pitcher for the Gamecocks will be junior left-hander Jordan Montgomery. He is the usual Friday night starter for the Gamecocks, but thanks to a Thursday-Saturday series last weekend will only be throwing on slightly shorter rest than usual. His ERA is 3.26 and he leads the team in strikeouts by a significant margin with 85 on the season. His 25 walks this year give him a 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Mississippi State finished the regular season 35-20 (18-12) and moved to 36-20 with yesterday's win over Georgia. Their only SEC series losses in the regular season came against LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs are hitting .271 with an on-base percentage of .368. Their ERA is 2.85 and opponents are hitting .240 against them. Mississippi State (.980) is the only team in the conference that has a better fielding percentage than the Gamecocks (.976).
Start time: 30 minutes after Kentucky vs. Florida ends. (That should be a start time around 9 p.m. ET if the other games go according to schedule)
Location: Hoover, Alabama (Hoover Metropolitan Stadium)
TV/Online: CSS and ESPN3
Radio: 107.5 The Game