The stretch run of the college baseball regular season is upon us. South Carolina has the Southeastern Conference championship and number one seed in the conference tournament at its fingertips sitting just one game behind Vanderbilt with six remaining. The Commodores have a more difficult run in and the Gamecocks (37-10, 18-6) hold the tiebreaker advantage when it comes to SEC Tournament standings over both Vandy and Florida. With just over a handful of games remaining, TheBigSpur.com takes a look at five key players needed for the stretch run. Photo feature not yet available on wireless.
Third baseman Adrian Morales was an RBI machine last season and he'll need to be that way again this year.
Last season, third baseman Adrian Morales was an RBI machine coming through with runners on base seemingly more often than not. This season, his batting average is up 16 points but his RBI totals have dropped. Part of it is surely because offense had declined this year but he also hasn’t had as many notable big hits. Morales has battled through a wrist injury this year which may have slowed his pop at the plate some. However, he did hit a few balls on the screws against Ole Miss, especially in Sunday’s rubber match. A late-season RBI outburst would be just what the Gamecocks need to enter the postseason with a SEC title.
Shortstop Peter Mooney has overcome a slow start to the season and early calls for a benching to become the team’s leadoff hitter and one of the best defensive shortstops in college baseball. Mired just over .200 for the first few weekends of the season, it was just a matter of time before the ball started to find some holes. His batting average is up to .274 and he has a positive walk-to-strikeout ration (29-22) from the leadoff spot in the order. He committed the lion’s share of his 10 errors the opening month of the season but he now comes up with highlight reel plays seemingly every game. Continual improvement in the leadoff role and continuing strong defense is critical for South Carolina down the stretch. Having runners on base for the run-producing duo of Christian Walker and Brady Thomas is key, plus, we all know by now defense wins championships.
Two-way player Steven Neff was going to be a key component for USC’s success in 2011 but no one knew just how vital his abilities would be down the stretch. Given the injuries in the outfield, pitching has taken a bit of a backseat in recent weeks. His bat will be needed in the lineup and his impressive power provides some punch to the bottom of the order. He’s really starting to settle in at the plate and his batting average is sure to climb. Of his five hits, four of them have been doubles. Even though he’ll play a key role with the bat, he’s also going to be out there on the mound. There’s a chance he could move back into the starting rotation this weekend against Arkansas with the hopes that he regains the form he had in his first SEC start against Georgia in which he mowed down the Bulldogs for seven innings.
A staff with enough left-handed pitchers to make any pitching coach drool, the Gamecocks haven’t had much consistency from the group. One player who has been special the first two falls and preseasons on campus is sophomore Tyler Webb but that success hasn’t always translated to the big stage. He’s had moments of brilliance both in starts and in relief but he’s also struggled with control and big innings at times. Webb is one of those swing players who could start or relieve during the stretch run but one thing is for sure, his arm will be counted on to get some big outs. Webb is 2-1 this season with a 3.14 earned run average in five starts and eight relief appearances.
There is a lot of hope, as there should be, that Jackie Bradley Jr. will return at some point this season. However, the biggest boost to the outfield would be having Adam Matthews back healthy. Even if Bradley Jr. could get on the field, it is probably only as a late-inning defensive replacement or perhaps as a pinch runner. Matthews, if his hamstring holds up, will be able to provide offense as well as defense. The junior is taking batting practice with his team and is currently available in a pinch hit role, assuming he doesn’t have to do more than drop a sacrifice bunt or hit a fly ball to the outfield but there is hope that he’ll be able to assume a much bigger role, at least against Alabama.
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