The South Carolina baseball team is extending its stay in Hoover a little longer than usual.
After five straight SEC Tournament losses dating back to 2018, Mark Kingston’s No. 6 seed Gamecocks defeated No. 11 Georgia 9-0 in the first game of tournament action on Tuesday, guaranteeing USC will play at least two more games.
The win is important for a USC team (39-18) that is trying fortify a regional hosting bid in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks now move to the double-elimination portion of the tournament and will play No. 3 LSU at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Wednesday, airing on SEC Network.
Here are key storylines for the Gamecocks heading into the matchup.
NCAA Tournament implications
After losing four straight SEC series to end the season, the Gamecocks traveled to Hoover on the hosting bubble. D1Baseball listed the Gamecocks traveling as a No. 2 seed in its most recent field of 64 projection, while Baseball America still had the Gamecocks as one of the 16 regional hosts, ranking at No. 13.
Tuesday’s win certainly doesn’t hurt the Gamecocks’ resume, but a win against LSU on Wednesday could be a massive jolt.
For one, the game presents a chance for USC and LSU to essentially finish off a three-game series that was shortened to two games due to rain earlier in the season. At that point, LSU ranked No. 1 in the country, and the Gamecocks split the two games they played with the Tigers. Wednesday, in a sense, serves as a rubber game.
Why is that important? As the NCAA Tournament selection committee pores over resumes, the quality of a team’s series wins is just as important — if not more important — than the team’s overall win total. Though the Gamecocks rank No. 6 in RPI and No. 4 in strength of schedule, they have just three series wins against regional-bound teams: Ivy League champion Penn, rival Clemson and the Florida Gators.
While the Clemson and Florida series wins are huge resume boosters — both teams have a chance to lock in national seeds — a 2-1 edge over the LSU Tigers would be a compelling addition to USC’s overall resume.
Pitching up in the air
Thanks to several injuries on the pitching side, USC’s starting pitchers for the next two days are both very much up in the air.
The Gamecocks are without starters Noah Hall (back), Will Sanders (lower body) and promising freshman Eli Jerzembeck (arm) for the tournament, and only Sanders is expected to pitch again this season. Closer Chris Veach is also dealing with a hip injury that clouds his status.
As a result, USC’s starting pitcher for Wednesday is anyone’s guess.
“Do you have a coin we can flip?” Kingston joked after Tuesday’s win. “It can be a quarter, a nickel, a dime, I don’t care. Does anybody carry change anymore to flip a coin? Going to have to go back to the hotel, look at some matchups. Obviously we know we’re going to play LSU, so we’ll look at who’s available from our side and then who makes the most sense.
“We’re going to have to find a way to fill the 27 outs within the nine innings, and we’re just going to have to put our heads together and try to make the best decision that we could.”
It’s possible that whoever starts for the Gamecocks could be making his first start of the season. Weekend arms Eli Jones, Jack Mahoney and Matthew Becker seem highly unlikely to pitch on short rest, leaving the likes of righthanders Sam Simpson, Brett Thomas and Wesley Sweatt as potential options. Of those three pitchers, Simpson is the only one to draw a start this season — exactly one — while Sweatt has thrown the most innings at 9.1 for the season.
It’s also possible USC turns to a reliever like Nick Proctor or Austin Williamson to start and try to piece the game together inning by inning.
Hicks earns regional start?
Junior right-hander James Hicks has primarily pitched in a bullpen role this season — and an important one. Hicks is usually one of the first men out of the bullpen in stressful situations or when one of USC’s starters is knocked out of a game early.
But with their options limited, the Gamecocks turned to Hicks as their starter against Georgia, and Hicks delivered the best outing of his Gamecocks career. Using his power sinker in on the hands of the Bulldogs, Hicks threw 6.2 scoreless innings and allowed just four hits, making UGA hitters uncomfortable all morning.
Kingston said that he expects Sanders back for regional play, but even if he’s healthy, is it possible Hicks has earned the right to start next weekend?
“Damn right,” Kingston said. “I mean, you have to, right? You have to. You always have to be evaluating what is going on and the trends of your team. Yeah, absolutely we have to look at that. We have to evaluate it.
“The reason why James was in the bullpen early in the season was not because he was not capable of being a weekend starter. It was because we just had probably one of the best, deepest pitching staffs in the country.”
South Carolina vs LSU
Wednesday: No. 6 USC vs. No. 3 LSU, 10:30 a.m. (SEC Network)