A rare thing happened on Sunday afternoon at Carolina Stadium.
South Carolina lost 5-3 to Arkansas in 11 innings. That, in and of itself, was not rare. But what it resulted in sure was. The Razorbacks swept USC this weekend. USC got swept last season at Kentucky, which was its first sweep since 2009 at Florida.
But what about at home? When is the last time the Gamecocks were swept at home?
A very long time ago, as it turns out – 1999 against Kentucky. The last two games in that series went just seven innings each. The last time USC was swept at home in a series with all nine-inning games? That would be 1996 against Florida.
When we’re talking about series sweeps, this only means weekend series. And this counts all weekend series, not just SEC series. Since joining the SEC in 1992, USC has never been swept in a non-conference weekend series, which is partly because USC does not play a lot of challenging non-conference opponents – the type of scheduling that generally makes sense when you’re in the SEC.
USC’s overall lack of sweeps also stems from the fact that the program has never been truly bad during its time in the SEC, and has often been very good, and sometimes great.
Here is a list of the times USC has been swept since joining the SEC …
AT HOME (FIVE TIMES) …
Kentucky, 1999 (two seven-inning games)
ON ROAD (13 TIMES) …
Auburn, 1992 (one eight-inning game)
As will be mentioned in Monday’s print edition story, USC’s offense has really struggled in its first two SEC series, during which it is 2-4 against Missouri and Arkansas.
USC’s pitching has been fine, for the most part, considering Jordan Montgomery has missed three straight series and will miss next weekend’s against Texas A&M because of a bone stress reaction in his elbow. The injury has healed and he could be ready to return for the April 5-7 series at Tennessee and definitely for the series after that, at Florida. He will resume his throwing program Monday.
Evan Beal hadn’t really been tested much before this weekend, though he did throw well against Missouri – one run, eight hits, 10 strikeouts and a walk in 6 1/3 innings. He struggled mightily in Friday’s 15-3 loss to Arkansas – six hits and eight runs in 3 2/3 innings. Nolan Belcher was strong again on Saturday, and now has an astounding 42 strikeouts and one walk in 43 1/3 innings.
USC turned to freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop on Sunday. He had not been tested against SEC-level competition in his previous five appearances, including three starts. All things considered, he performed solidly on Sunday. He gave up seven hits and three runs in 4 2/3 innings and threw 100 pitches. He had just started and thrown 70 pitches on Tuesday at The Citadel.
USC really needs to get Montgomery back, and needs Colby Holmes to figure out his issues. That would allow Montgomery to slide back into the starting rotation along with Belcher. The third spot would be between Holmes, Beal and Wynkoop, and the two odd men out could serve well as setup relievers – a role in which Beal has already proven capable.
Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook isn’t going to bail on Beal after one bad start. For the Texas A&M series, Holbrook has no choice other than to stick with Beal, since Montgomery won’t be back.
Remember, the Texas A&M series starts on Thursday, because ESPNU is broadcasting that game. It is difficult to envision Holbrook moving Belcher up to the No. 1 spot, as it were, on Thursday, after he just started Saturday and threw 116 pitches over 7 1/3 innings.
Belcher threw 118 pitches against Clemson, 103 against Rider, 120 against Missouri and then 116 against Arkansas. Over the course of five starts (counting the end of his Albany start before Clemson), Belcher went 31 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing a run.
So the starters for Texas A&M seem like they will be Beal, Belcher and Wynkoop, considering Holbrook started Wynkoop on four days of rest Sunday over a fresher Holmes, who now has not thrown since March 16 at Missouri – his third straight bad start.
Before the Missouri series, it seemed easy to wonder if this team might actually hit better than last year’s group, even though the Gamecocks lost Christian Walker, their leading hitter the past two seasons. Through six SEC games (still with 24 remaining), USC is hitting 34 of 198 against league competition (.172), compared to .303 against non-league opponents. Last season, USC hit .265 against the league, which ranked seventh in the 12-team SEC.
Despite the poor hitting of late, USC’s players aren’t fretting too much. They remember starting 1-5 in SEC play season and ending up 18-11, so 2-4 isn’t that much different.
“Obviously starting off 1-5 last year wasn’t the best situation, but looking back now, we’ve got some younger guys that were on that team, freshmen last year, that went through that,” said closer Tyler Webb, who has a 1.00 ERA with 26 strikeouts and six walks in 18 innings. “They kind of have to take a bigger role this year and maybe that was a good thing for them to be a part of that and experience us coming back from that.”
Said leading hitter LB Dantzler: “We started off 1-5 last year, so by no means is it the end of our season. We obviously didn’t want to come here and get swept. That’s kind of the worst case scenario. But we’ll bounce back. It’s not the best situation to come here and lose three games at home. That sucks. But like I said, it’s not the end of the world.
“(The Razorbacks) definitely are a very good (pitching) staff, but that’s what you see in this league. We have to adjust. The (chilly) conditions (on Sunday) weren’t ideal to be playing in, but by no means am I going to make any excuses. They had to deal with it, too. It’s just one of those things.”
Trying to manufacture some runs against Arkansas’ strong staff, Holbrook called on Dantzler to sacrifice bunt in the eighth and 10th innings of a 3-3 game Sunday, both times right after Joey Pankake got on with a lead-off single. Dantzler said he didn’t have a problem doing it.
“You put the running in scoring position for Grayson (Greiner) and Max (Schrock), two of our best hitters,” Dantzler said. “(Holbrook) actually took it off the first time with two strikes. I did that on my own. I think it was the best situation to help us win, so I wanted to do it.”
Said Holbrook: “I probably would have let him hit if there was a right-hander throwing, but LB has been struggling versus lefties and his strikeouts are up. His confidence isn’t where it needs to be facing left-handed pitching. I wanted to get a run in scoring position and have two cracks to win the game. I’ll sleep at night knowing that was the right play.”
USC does not make public its players’ split stats against right-handers and left-handers, so there are no available numbers to back up what Holbrook said, unfortunately.
Holbrook called Arkansas’ staff “as good and as deep as any pitching staff in the country.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks USC’s paltry hitting this weekend is acceptable.
“It was a frustrating weekend for us,” he said. “I was proud of our guys for showing a little bit of fight there late. (Randall) Fant was terrific. His changeup, our guys couldn’t pick it up. He had great arm speed on it. It’s tough to hit that pitch. It was very, very similar to what Nolan Belcher does. They got the big hit when they needed to, and we didn’t.”
Holbrook said USC’s batting average in the SEC so far is “not good enough. We’ve got to make a few changes and adjustments and change our mindset and mentality a little bit. There’s a lot of good pitchers in front of us on our schedule. We had a chance to win it today offensively and we just couldn’t get it done.
“It’s a long, long season. Momentum can carry you. I guess we won (12) in a row last year at one point in the league. You can get hot. I think our guys know that. We’ve got some experience in there and that helps. But it’s no fun sitting up here 2-4, just like it was no fun sitting up there 1-5 last year. It’s no fun.
“Digging yourself out of a hole in this league is not easy, and I feel fortunate we were able to do it last year. I kind of tell our guys (that) we break the segments up into 10 games and it’s three, 10-game seasons in the league. We try to be over .500 in each 10 games. We’ve got our work cut out for us to get over .500 in the first 10. Our guys are hurting. They care. I think you’ll see our team bounce back.”