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Gamecocks open SEC play today

The South Carolina baseball team's seven consecutive wins look good for its record, but tonight the Gamecocks start all over.

With Tennessee coming to Carolina Stadium for the first three-game SEC series of the season, the push to reach postseason play begins in earnest. For USC coach Ray Tanner, the hard part is here.

"Anybody in our league is capable of being one of the top teams in the country, and I'm not giving you coach-speak," Tanner said. "I'm being truthful."

The No. 16 Gamecocks (13-4), who are one of seven SEC teams ranked in Baseball America's Top 25 -- and although Tennessee (10-7) is not among them -- Tanner is taking nothing for granted.

"You look at their record at 10-7, but then you look at their personnel, and you know they're good," he said.

Leading the Volunteers is Friday-night starter Bryan Morgado, a junior right-hander who returned to school despite being drafted in the third round last summer by the Chicago White Sox. The hard-throwing Morgado (2-1), who has 29 strikeouts in 22 innings, is the sort of pitcher the Gamecocks are going to see in the opener of every SEC series.

"He's a power guy. He's a dominating guy," Tanner said. "He's got a great arm."

USC senior right-hander Blake Cooper (3-0) has pitched well in taking over the Friday-night role for his team. He's ready to go as conference play gets underway.

"I was a little nervous at the beginning of the year," Cooper said, "but I'm starting to settle in now," Cooper said.

He understands the stakes are higher in the 10 conference series.

"When the SEC starts, the intensity level rises a little bit." he said.

Junior outfielder Whit Merrifield, who is batting .351 with a team-high three homers and 17 RBIs, believes the Gamecocks are prepared to raise their intensity to match the competition. He likes how they have rebounded with the current winning streak since losing a pair of early series to ranked opponents in East Carolina and Clemson.

"We just stayed positive and stayed confident. We felt like we could have won both those series," Merrifield said. "We're still confident about being a good team going into the conference season."

Tanner knows his team still has something to prove after losing two of three to the Pirates and to the Tigers.

"I was a little frustrated and a little upset that we didn't get one of those two series," he said. "It bothered me. It still bothers me."

But he also realizes his team should improve once the starting lineup gets on the field at the same time. Sophomore outfielder Jackie Bradley has sustained through two separate hand injuries, although he hopes to return this weekend. Senior shortstop Bobby Haney is still dealing with a shoulder injury, and his status is similar to that of Bradley. And senior first baseman Nick Ebert hasn't quite gotten untracked offensively after missing the opening series because of academic issues.

While Tanner is pleased with the team's performance given some of the extenuating circumstances, he is quite certain he's going to need a healthy team that is swinging the bats better to compete for an SEC title. To date, the Gamecocks have hit just 14 homers and have had to play a little more small ball to come out on top.

"I feel pretty good, not great. We've done some good things. We've shown some resiliency and bounced back," Tanner said. "We've competed well, and our pitching staff has continued to do a nice job."

The pitching staff has a 3.74 ERA and has allowed opponents to hit .214, and that's in spite of the 19-run shellacking against Clemson.

Both the pitching and the hitting, however, are going to have to improve starting today. Of that, Tanner is certain.

"I know everybody in our league is good," he said.