There are certain words you just don’t utter around fans of the South Carolina Gamecocks, Hoover being one of the chief offenders.
Yes, the town probably more well known for being the center of a once-popular MTV series about high school football is also the annual site of the SEC baseball tournament. This year being an outlier, South Carolina is often thought of as a baseball school first and foremost before anything.
“So...” the non-South Carolina fan wonders, “What’s so bad about Hoover?”
Everything, that’s what.
Since 1998, Hoover, Ala. has been the regular sight of the SEC baseball tournament and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. But even before the tournament was held in Hoover — and in spite of all the success South Carolina’s baseball program has had — the SEC tournament continues to be a sore spot for the Gamecocks.
Since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992, the Gamecocks have made 24 tournament appearances but are 24-39 in those combined tournaments. The lone bright spot coming in 2004 when South Carolina won as a No. 5 seed in a classic 3-2 game over then No. 7 Vanderbilt.
Fast forward to the present day: South Carolina is reeling off one of the programs three worst seasons in the last 20 years while Vanderbilt is similarly experiencing one of their weaker seasons in head coach Tim Corbin’s 15-year tenure.
SEC baseball is weird like that. Vanderbilt and South Carolina have been in five of the last seven College World Series Championships, now they’re both arguably fighting for at-large spots in the NCAA tournament. Vandy may still have a shot of getting in if they were to go one-and-done tomorrow morning, South Carolina not so much.
With a 13-17 conference record and having lost eight series in a row, even with the 37th ranked RPI South Carolina can’t afford anything but a strong performance in Hoover if they don’t want to be home come selection Sunday for the second time in three seasons.
And as previously mentioned, the likelihood of that happening is simply not good. Though, if South Carolina is to hope for a win they’ll most likely have to follow these three guidelines in order to move on to No. 3 seed Kentucky Wednesday:
A quality start
This should probably go without saying in any baseball game, but South Carolina hasn’t been able to generate the kind of offense this season that could potentially bail them out a bad start. Whoever Chad Holbrook decides to start Tuesday morning needs to give seven innings of three runs or less in order for South Carolina to have a shot to win.
The Gamecock bullpen has been so chaotic this season there’s just no way you could trust the unit to carry a lead against a better-than-solid Vanderbilt offense. Surely fans don’t need to be reminded of April 7 when the Gamecocks took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning in Columbia and ended the night with a 5-3 loss in 13 innings.
As of the time of publishing, no starter has been announced for the Gamecocks. But whether it by Cody Morris, Reed Scott or Adam Hill — they’ll have eat some innings, and good innings at that.
Neutralize Julian Infante
Gamecock fans who remember the Vanderbilt series most likely remember Commodores first baseman Julian Infante too. Infante has been one of the best pure hitters in the SEC this season, but against South Carolina he was especially pesky. It was Infante’s homer in the 12th inning of the second game which would swing the tide of the series in Vandy’s favor.
In three games Infante posted a .285/.333/.714 slashline with three runs scored, four RBI and two home runs. Scary as it is, Infante isn’t even the best hitter on his team. Third baseman Will Toffey has posted an OPS of 1.027 this season and behind Brent Rooker is in the discussion as the second best offensive player in the SEC.
But needless to say, South Carolina can’t afford to let one player alone swing a crucial game like this one. Not Infante, not Toffey or anyone else in Vanderbilt’s lineup.
Someone step up
On offense, specifically. South Carolina’s offense has not been great or arguably even good in 2017. The Gamecocks hold a team OPS of .749 and by college baseball standards that’s very average. Like Infante was a pest against the Gamecocks back in this initial series, someone in the South Carolina’s lineup needs to present themselves as a similar challenge.
As to who it will be? Who knows at this point. Carlos Cortes might be the most popular candidate, as he’s secretly having a solid freshman season. Cortes currently holds an OPS of .886, which leads the team by a solid margin with Jacob Olsen coming in behind him with an .806.
Whatever arm will take the mound for Vanderbilt will be good — even if it’s down from the qualify that won them a national title two years ago. South Carolina’s pitching hasn’t been the sturdy rock you can rely on like it has been in the past, so one or two bats will have to wake up in order to give whoever is pitching for the Gamecocks a chance.