A month and a half ago things looked bleak for the Gamecocks. They had just dropped a game to a bad PC team, had nothing to show for some hard-fought SEC road games except a losing conference record, and were dealing with a bad injury bug. But they went 12-5 through the last several weeks of the season to finish 5th in the SEC and play their way into the polls for the first time in a while. Now the Gamecocks have earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament after missing it twice in the last three years and are heading to Greenville to try to prove that they have developed into a great team a little ahead of schedule under first-year head coach Mark Kingston.
The Carolina offense has noticeably improved with the return of most of the starters to the regular lineup, although the Gamecocks definitely missed TJ Hopkins over the past few weeks. Hopkins has a back injury that took him out of the starting lineup, and while Kingston hopes that he will be able to play some this weekend, he’s not likely to start or to be a big contributor on offense. The Gamecocks are still playing well offensively though, and are hitting .274 as a team, with a .366 on-base percentage and a .446 slugging percentage. Seniors Madison Stokes (.342/.424/.609) and Justin Row (.338/.399/.532) have been huge pieces of the Carolina lineup in the back half of the season. The Gamecocks also have a lineup that’s dangerous from top to bottom when everything clicks. The two regular starters with the lowest averages, Carlos Cortes (.244/.369/.507) and Jacob Olson (.223/.279/.450), are the team leaders in home runs. If the Gamecocks can all show up hitting their best this weekend, they’ll be able to test any pitchers they face.
The Gamecock defense has been as strong as ever this year and is fielding .981 as a team. They are anchored by excellent play behind the plate from Hunter Taylor and by veteran third baseman Jonah Bride. The Carolina pitching has been a bit more up and down. The team ERA is 4.31 with opponents hitting .240 against the Gamecocks. One of Carolina’s biggest problems this year was how often they walked batters. USC led the SEC in walks with 244, and giving out so many free passes often got the pitching staff into trouble. Fortunately, the Gamecocks have a lot of talent and have several pitchers capable of giving strong performances on the mound. They’ll need that this weekend, particularly from the starters, as one of the most difficult things about playing in a Regional can be the way it stretches and tests pitching depth.
Despite missing the NCAA Tournament last year and in 2015, the Gamecocks are back in familiar territory by being in the postseason again. What doesn’t feel familiar is being on the road in the first round, which hasn’t happened since 2009 when the Gamecocks were also sent to the Greenville Regional. They failed to advance that year, but this season’s team is good enough to pull the upset and avoid repeating history. The Gamecocks peaked at exactly the right time this season and if they can continue to play their best baseball then they’ll have a chance to go deeper into the postseason than anyone thought they could a few months ago.