WHAT: South Carolina (23-13, 8-7) at Florida (25-12, 8-7)
WHERE: McKethan Stadium (5,500), Gainesville, Fla.
WHEN: Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at noon;
RADIO/TV: Thursday – ESPNU; Friday – SEC Network; Saturday – ESPN2 ((Karl Ravech, Kyle Peterson and Chris Burke); Gamecocks IMG Radio Network with Derek Scott and Tommy Moody (107.5 FM in Columbia).
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS:
Friday: USC Jr. RHP Clarke Schmidt (4-1, 1.31 ERA, 55.0 IP) vs. FLA Jr. RHP Alex Faedo (5-1, 2.84 ERA, 57.0 IP)
Saturday: USC Jr. RHP Wil Crowe (3-3, 3.49 ERA, 56.2 IP) vs. FLA So. RHP Brady Singer (4-2, 1.68 ERA, 64.1 IP)
Sunday: USC So. RHP Adam Hill (2-3, 2.14 ERA, 46.1 IP) vs. FLA So. RHP Jackson Kowar (6-0, 3.51 ERA, 51.1 IP).
South Carolina and Florida are both looking up at Kentucky (10-5) in the SEC East standings, but that undeniable fact doesn’t diminish the significance of the 3-game series between the Gamecocks and Gators beginning Thursday night in Gainesville.
After all, this is South Carolina and Florida, two nationally prominent programs clashing on the big stage with national TV audiences on three different ESPN platforms looking on all three days.
“There are pictures all around this stadium (Founders Park) of national championship games of us going at it,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “We have a monumental task in front of us this weekend. But it’s always an important series. We have 15 games left (in the SEC) and they’re all important. You definitely want to play well against the best teams in the country.”
Expect a close, hard-fought, low-scoring series. USC and Florida feature two of the best weekend rotations in the league, rank among the top three SEC teams in staff ERA and are both ranked in the bottom one-third in team batting average.
Florida is second in the SEC with a team ERA of 3.10 in 37 games, while the Gamecocks are close behind in third at 3.14 in 36 games. Contrastly, USC (.271) and Florida (.254) are ranked 11th and 13th, respectively, in team batting average.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us going against three of the best pitchers in the country,” Holbrook said. “Our guys are pretty good too. It sets up to be a really big series for them and for us. Everybody is closely matched in the league and everybody is bunched together from a win-loss standpoint.”
Facing three of their next four SEC series on the road (Florida, LSU, Missouri), USC is 6-2 on the road overall, 4-2 in the SEC. The Gamecocks swept Tennessee in March and lost the rubber game to Auburn in heartbreaking fashion. Holbrook is pleased with how the Gamecocks have performed on the road in hostile stadiums.
“I like the way we’ve played on the road,” Holbrook said. “I don’t know what it is. Maybe our guys take a deep breath and relax a little bit on the road. We have played great baseball on the road this year and hopefully that will continue. Sometimes we have less people on the road yelling at our players than we do at home.”’
South Carolina’s 2.77 ERA in 15 SEC games leads the conference. The Gamecocks have 150 strikeouts in 139.2 innings during conference play.
“Runs are going to be hard to come by,” Holbrook said. “Our guys are going to have to keep them at bay. It will take our best baseball of the season to win down there. Personally, I think we can match up with anybody we play if we play. Everything has to be clicking. We can’t leave one aspect of the game in the locker room and expect to win. Yet, if we play defense and we pitch and battle like crazy at the late, we can beat anybody.”
Closer Tyler Johnson demonstrated Tuesday night against Davidson that he was healthy and ready to go in a pressure situation in the SEC. He needed just 15 pitches to fan the side in the top of the ninth for his fifth save of the season.
Johnson has 18 strikeouts in 9.2 innings pitched so far this season. Having him available gives the Gamecocks another valuable weapon in a high-stakes series on the road. Johnson hit the high 90’s on the radar gun Tuesday night.
“I don’t think he’s gun shy,” Holbrook said. “He’s healthy. Our medical team did a great job with him. We were very conservative and didn’t rush him back. We wanted to make sure we had him for the rest of the year. Hopefully, that will be the case. I feel good about our chances when we have a lead late in the game and we have that big boy out there.”
-- The Gamecocks are ranked as high as No. 18 in the major national polls, while UF is ranked as high as No. 9.
-- Sophomore OF Jacob Olson has reached base in 24 straight games.
-- Holbrook said OF T.J. Hopkins is not 100 percent physically, but he will travel with the team to Gainesville.
-- Senior RP Reed Scott has made 15 relief appearances and has moved into ninth all-time in career appearances for the Gamecocks with 80. He is 1-2 with a 3.66 ERA and two saves. Top 10 career appearances in South Carolina History:
110 Tyler Webb (2010-12)
102 Matt Price (2009-12)
94 Michael Roth (2009-12)
88 Rob Mosser (1990-93)
87 Aaron Rawl (2002-05)
87 Jason Pomar (1996-99)
86 Jamie Poston (1997-00)
81 Kip Bouknight (1998-01)
80 Reed Scott (2014-17)
79 Brian Beatson (1987-90)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
C – Chris Cullen (.300)
1B – Matt Williams (.262)
2B – L.T. Tolbert (.325)
3B – Jonah Bride (.291)
SS – Madison Stokes (.227)
LF – Alex Destino (.261)
CF – T.J. Hopkins (.276) OR Danny Blair (.243)
RF – Jacob Olson (.306)
DH – Carlos Cortes (.286)
SEC EAST STANDINGS (As of April 19)
South Carolina 8-7
UPCOMING SEC SCHEDULE (April 20-23)
South Carolina at Florida (Thu-Sat)
Alabama at Mississippi State (Thu-Sat)
Tennessee at Texas A&M
LSU at Kentucky
Vanderbilt at Georgia
Arkansas at Auburn
Missouri at Ole Miss
(All 3-game series)
SEC CONFERENCE WINS LADDER:
10: Kentucky, Auburn, Miss. State
8: South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M
7: Missouri, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss
4: Georgia, Tennessee
GAMECOCKS 2017 SEC SCHEDULE/RESULTS:
March 17-19 at Tennessee, W 3-0
March 24-26 ALABAMA, W 2-1
March 31-April 2 at Auburn, L 1-2
April 6-8 VANDERBILT, L 1-2
April 14-16 MISSISSIPPI STATE, L 1-2
April 20-22 at Florida
April 28-30 KENTUCKY
May 5-7 at LSU
May 12-14 at Missouri
May 18-20 GEORGIA
May 23-28 SEC Tournament (at Hoover, Ala.)