By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
With its season on the line, South Carolina must do two things this weekend it hasn't done in weeks.
Play great baseball.
And win an SEC series.
Anything less could leave the Gamecocks on the outside looking in when the NCAA Tournament begins in two weeks.
"With where are sitting right now, obviously every game is extremely important and we need to play our best baseball of the year," head coach Chad Holbrook said Thursday.
"We are just going to have to continue pick each other up and play great baseball. Obviously how well we play this week is going to determine a lot of what comes the next couple of weeks."
The Gamecocks have done little of that in the past two months, losing seven straight SEC series. It has lost 15 of its last 28 games, including 14 of 21 in conference play to fall to 31-21 overall and 12-15 in the SEC.
It faces a Georgia team that is 9-18 in the conference (22-30 overall) but is playing its best baseball of the season. The Bulldogs have won five of its last seven games, winning back-to-back series against Kentucky and Mississippi State, two of the top teams in the conference.
By most accounts, South Carolina must win the series and then make a deep run in the SEC Tournament next week to have a shot at postseason play.
"You don't put yourself in a good position at all if you lose the series this weekend," Holbrook said. "Anything short of winning the series is going to put us in a very difficult spot."
The Gamecocks, who were ranked fourth in the nation in preseason polls, have fallen to 30th in the latest rankings and are 29th in RPI. But with as many as 10 SEC teams in position to possibly make the tournament, that might not be enough.
"I know our metrics and numbers are good, but you have to put yourself in that conversation, and that comes with winning some games," Holbrook said. "We have some games on the table that we need to win."
With the season on the line, Holbrook is pondering his moves for the series against Georgia, which starts Thursday night at Founders Park. Wil Crowe (5-4, 3.50) will start Game 1, and that's a good start. Crowe took over the No. 1 spot when Clarke Schmidt was lost for the season and his pitched well in three of his last four starts, including wins at Florida and last week at Missouri.
"I feel great about giving him the ball," Holbrook said. "He wants the ball in a game of this magnitude."
Having lost two more starters — catcher Chris Cullen and shortstop Madison Stokes — to season-ending injuries this week, Holbrook must juggle his lineup. Justin Row, who went 3-for-4 in the win against USC Upstate Tuesday night, will start at second base, with LT Tolbert sliding over to short.
Holbrook must hope Tolbert is healthy after suffering a migraine Tuesday night and battling wrist and thumb injuries all season. He also needs center fielder TJ Hopkins, who has missed several games with a nagging quad injury.
Hunter Taylor and John Jones will share the catching duties but Holbrook must decide between freshman Riley Hogan and senior Ross Grosvenor at first base. Both have been swinging hot bats of late.
Alex Destino, who homered Tuesday night, likely will be back in the lineup, sharing left field and DH with hot-hitting freshman Carlos Cortes.
"We need Carlos and Alex swinging the bat at the same time to be the offense we want to be," Holbrook said.
And perhaps the most critical player is closer Tyler Johnson, who has dominating stuff but has struggled since returning from a 20-game absence with a sore arm. Johnson is still throwing in the high-90s but has struggled with his command.
"He just needs to come in there and be Tyler Johnson, and Tyler Johnson has a great arm and can throw strikes," Holbrook said.
Josh Reagan, Reed Scott, Colie Bowers and a host of others could be used early and often in the bullpen. Holbrook said the urgency of the moment may force him to make some uncharacteristic moves.
"We are going to play these games like there is no tomorrow, and you manage differently when you are not thinking about the next day. And there is no thinking about the next day," he said.
More importantly, South Carolina has to deliver in the clutch, something it has failed to do in many key situations this season.
"We just have to keep putting ourselves in position to win games and hopefully we can make that pitch or make that play when the game is on the line this weekend," he said.
"They have played hard, and they've been together this whole time. They just have to make that next step. Make a pitch, make a defensive play or come up with a big hit late in the game to cement a big series win."
The players understand what is on the line and what they must do.
"We know this is a big weekend and we are preparing like it's the NCAA Tournament and every game matters," Crowe said.
The game plan, Hopkins said, is simple.
"Thursday win, Friday win, Saturday win. That's all we can do."