**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**
The South Carolina baseball team begins a very important series in the "other Columbia" on Friday. The Gamecocks travel to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers, and they hope to put an end to six straight SEC series losses.
Last weekend, it appeared South Carolina was about to win an impressive series at a Top-15 LSU team, but a controversial call led to an extra-inning loss in Sunday's rubber match.
The Gamecocks did a great job of putting that behind them, however, as they defeated Presbyterian and Liberty in midweek action. John Parke led a great pitching effort in the PC win while the Gamecocks used a six-run inning to overcome a five-run deficit against a very good Liberty team.
"I think those two wins build on a little momentum," head coach Chad Holbrook said. "I think at LSU with the way that our guys played gave our guys some confidence. I just have that feeling. They were in position to win and felt like they could've easily won. They're in a good spot right now, mentally."
Missouri carries a 29-20 overall record into Friday's opener, but it is just 9-15 in SEC play. The Tigers have dropped four straight SEC series, and are desperate to improve their NCAA Tournament resume.
The Tigers have an excellent pitching staff led by ace Tanner Houck. The junior has a 3-7 record, but that's deceiving. He has a 2.88 ERA, has pitched two complete games and has struck out 81 batters in 81.1 innings pitched.
Missouri is mixing it up this weekend though as it will send Houck to the mound on Saturday while moving a freshman reliever to the Friday night slot. TJ Sikkema will be making his first career start, but has racked up a mind-boggling 7-0 record in 19 relief appearances. The seven wins lead the team, as does the four saves. Sikkema has a 2.39 ERA and has struck out 67 batters in 60.1 innings pitched. On Sunday the Tigers will go with Bryce Montes De Oca, who is 3-5 on the year with a 3.97 ERA.
"They have a good pitching staff," Holbrook said. "We have to figure out a way to scratch and claw and figure out a way to win."
South Carolina has a good pitching rotation itself, even without star Clarke Schmidt. Wil Crowe will start on Friday and Adam Hill will take the rubber on Saturday. Sunday's starter is TBD. The pitching staff has been solid overall, but closer Tyler Johnson has struggled of late. He was brought in to close the door in the Liberty win, but was only able to get one out while walking two and giving up a single.
"Have to get Tyler going," Holbrook said. "I'm concerned for him. He's hit a bump in the road, but he'll be fine. He just has to get back out there again. I don't think he's feeling too good about himself right now."
Holbrook mentioned that he believes it's a confidence issue for Johnson. However, the Gamecocks need him to get back to his elite level if they want to make a strong run to close the regular season.
Junior slugger Alex Destino agrees with his head coach's statement that the team is in a good spot right now. However, another SEC series loss would be devastating for the Gamecocks, so they hope to keep the momentum going from the two midweek victories.
"I'd say we're as confident as we've been," Destino said. "Missouri is really good. They have good arms up there. We have our hands full, but we're going to be excited going up there."