Sports

Solid start bodes well for USC

South Carolina's Blake Cooper delivers a pitch against Clemson on Sunday. The Gamecocks' pitching staff was stellar against the Tigers, which could signal a solid season ahead.
South Carolina's Blake Cooper delivers a pitch against Clemson on Sunday. The Gamecocks' pitching staff was stellar against the Tigers, which could signal a solid season ahead.

CLEMSON -- South Carolina's Gamecocks stepped into a new baseball season with a scary offense and question marks among the pitchers.

Six games later, understand that if USC's mound corps matches the performance in the weekend sweep of Clemson, the Gamecocks can look favorably to putting Omaha and the College World Series in their June travel plans.

Yes, yes, yes, the season is only six games old and looking to success in June might sound a bit bold. But the results -- the Gamecocks won 10-1 Saturday in Columbia and 5-1 Sunday in Clemson's playpen -- speak volumes.

Their early-season sweep of Clemson tells so much, re-enforcing the offensive capabilities and suggesting the starting pitching will deliver in a big way.

The Gamecocks dominated the two-game set against another nationally ranked team and now have a 4-1 mark against teams in the polls -- strong medicine by any measuring stick.

Carolina did not perform flawlessly Sunday; some defensive misadventures gave the Tigers extra outs, clutch hitting left something to be desired and a base-running blunder wiped out a chance for a big inning.

Yet, the Tigers never threatened, and the Gamecocks should go into the SEC schedule in two weeks brimming with confidence.

"I'm excited about our pitching," coach Ray Tanner said.

He should be.

East Carolina roughed up Blake Cooper, the No. 2 starter, in the Pirates' 13-4 victory on Feb. 23, and the pundits took note. The Gamecocks will win a lot of high-scoring games, the thinking went.

After Sunday, the outlook is far different.

Cooper worked six innings, surrendering seven hits and an unearned run. Curtis Johnson finished with three shutout innings.

Asked to rate his performance, Cooper dodged and said, "I have had some good ones and bad ones."

The sophomore right-hander fashioned a 7-2 record last season with a 4.48 ERA and earned Freshman All-America honors, but the pitching staff could not hold leads in the Super Regional against North Carolina.

Thus, the questions marks surrounded the pitching staff before the season.

"I'm not surprised with the pitchers' success," shortstop Reese Havens said. "I know people thought that would be a problem, but those guys worked their butts off."

Tanner, who picked up his 900th college coaching victory Sunday, noted the obvious -- good pitching gives a team a chance to win.

That is especially true with a team that features a lethal lineup such as Carolina.

"There are no soft spots," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said, and the Gamecocks' continuous pressure made the result inevitable.

Clemson starter D.J. Mitchell showed grit by maneuvering out of multiple jams. Although he yielded two runs (one earned) in just over five innings, he gave up 10 hits and walked three.

"He made some big pitches," Leggett said. "(Clemson) has some pitches to hit, but we just did not."

Failure in the clutch can be traced to the Gamecocks' relentless offense. Knowing that, sooner or later, the opposition will strike can be suffocating.

"We made mistakes, missed some signals and struck out 11 times," Tanner, ever the coach in search for perfection, said. "But we play hard."

Yes they do, and their question mark turned into an exclamation point over the weekend.

"I looked at their numbers before the series and thought, 'Maybe they won't hit .360 against us,'" Tanner said.

They did not. Mike Cisco and Will Atwood set the table Saturday and Cooper and Johnson delivered an encore Sunday. The Tigers finished the weekend with a .250 average and scored two runs.

"You can win a lot of games with pitching like that," Tanner said.

Yes, and pitching of that caliber leads to the College World Series. Omaha is lovely in June.

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