Gamecocks sweep Princeton; Prepare to open SEC season at Kentucky
The Gamecocks took on UNC-Asheville in a midweek contest and then hosted Princeton for the weekend series. Carolina emerged victorious in all four games, bringing their season record to 13-1. They’ll host Charleston Southern on Tuesday night and Appalachian State on Wednesday night before heading to Kentucky to open SEC play.
So what happened this weekend? Some good things and some slightly less good things.
Good news first. Carolina’s pitching staff combined for 35 strikeouts this weekend. Impressive by any standard. What’s more impressive is that to balance those 35 Ks, the Gamecocks only issued 3 walks. That’s pretty much unheard of. The staff gave up 18 hits, and finished with a 1.00 ERA on the weekend. That brings the stats-to-date to 143 strikeouts, 34walks, 71 hits, 26 runs, a .157 opponent batting average, and a 1.55 ERA in 127.1 innings. It’s ok if you needed to read that sentence several times. It doesn’t sound believable. And here’s the best part: It’s not just the starters who are contributing to these numbers. The Carolina bullpen has been lights-out for the most part. And, if we’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that depth of pitching wins championships. We’ll see how the Gamecocks do against an SEC opponent this weekend, but I have hope.
Not so good news next. Where, oh where, has the Gamecock offense gone? With the exception of Kyle Martin, Evan Marzilli, Erik Payne, and Christian Walker, the bats were pretty silent this weekend. The Gamecocks struck out 18 times in three days. But that wasn’t the worst of it. They stranded 32 runners. 32. That concerns me. 32 runners stranded against Princeton. That’s something that has to change, or the Gamecocks won’t be able to make it through the SEC season, let alone have the chance for another title run.
The middle infield question. Ray Tanner made some changes up the middle this weekend, and they definitely surprised me. First, Connor Bright started every game at shortstop. Bright had been vying for the starting role at 2nd base, but apparently he got the start at SS after Joey Pankake’s defensive struggles last weekend. Bright did a nice job at short, but whether or not it was good enough to earn him a permanent starting role remains to be seen. Even more surprising was seeing Erik Payne at 2nd base. Payne was the backup utility infielder last season, but didn’t see much time playing behind Adrian Morales. If you recall, Payne hadn’t even been in the conversation about the 2nd base job, and frankly, I thought that Chase Vergason had pretty much wrapped up the starting job after the Clemson series. Looks like I was wrong. Payne had a great weekend, both in the field and at the plate. He had four hits over the course of the weekend, including an RBI double and a huge home run. Looks like he’s a legitimate contender for the starting job. He and Bright made quite the formidable pair this weekend, so maybe Coach Tanner has found what he’s looking for?
Weekend Preview: At Kentucky. The Gamecocks will hit the road this weekend to take on Kentucky in the opening weekend of SEC play. The Wildcats are 16-0 on the season. They are also the only NCAA team without a loss. Kentucky owns the best team batting average in the SEC at .349 with 16 home runs. Their pitching is pretty top notch too, with a 3.25 team ERA with 163 strikeouts in 144 innings (that’s 16.2 more innings than the Gamecocks have played). On paper, this is set to be a terrific weekend series. If the Gamecocks can find their bats, stop stranding runners, and continue to pitch as they have been, they may have a shot at handing UK their first loss(es) of the season. If USC doesn’t find a way to get those runners home, Kentucky is going to have an easy road to victory. I’d say the Gamecocks have the better all-around pitching staff, but Kentucky’s hitters definitely have one leg up on Carolina. Get ready for three extremely hard fought games. The only prediction I have is that the team who makes the fewest mistakes will get the win(s).
This week’s games:
vs. Charleston Southern – 3/13, 7 p.m.
vs. Appalachian State – 3/14, 7 p.m.
at Kentucky – 3/16, 7 p.m. (CSS)
at Kentucky – 3/17, 2 p.m.
at Kentucky – 3/18, 1 p.m. (FS South / FS Carolinas)