The South Carolina baseball team seems to be clicking at this point in the season. The Gamecocks are getting timely hits, playing clean defense and throwing strong games. They're playing well and riding a five-game win streak into this weekend. And this is exactly the right time to click as a team.
SEC play opens up this weekend and the Gamecocks have a big task in front of them — hosting the defending national champions and current No. 2 Florida Gators. Despite all of the things going well for them at the moment, head coach Mark Kingston still sees a lot of room for improvement going into conference play.
"We're not where I want to be yet, because I want all nine hitters in our lineup to be hot, I want all of our pitchers to be pounding the strike zone at all times and then ... we're leaving a couple plays defensively on the field," Kingston said. "I think if you look at our numbers across the board we're doing most things at a pretty high level right now so from that standpoint I'm pretty pleased but our coaching staff and our players are always looking to take that next step and get better."
The Gators (16-3) are off to another great start this season, coming off of a stellar pitching performance last weekend. Florida's pitching staff allowed just two earned runs over the three-game series, giving up just two extra-base hits and 11 hits total against Rhode Island.
Friday's game at Founders Park will be one of the top pitching duels in the country that night. Kingston pointed out that this would be a game many scouts will be coming to and highly anticipate. Adam Hill will again get the start for South Carolina, while Brady Singer will head to the mound for Florida. Singer has a 4-0 record with a 2.08 ERA over 26 innings of work. He's second in the team in strikeouts with 25 and has walked just three batters.
Hill will look to continue the dominant performances he's thrown recently, primarily in the Charleston Southern and No. 10 Clemson games. Hill has a bit of a higher ERA, 3.91 over 23 innings, but has found success in the strike zone as he leads the team with 43 strikeouts. Despite the tough task ahead and Florida being just the second ranked team the Gamecocks have seen this season, Hill said he's taking the preparation the same as any other game.
"Clemson's obviously a great team and so is Florida but every game is different," Hill said. "I'm just going to approach it as I would any other one. Try to get ahead of hitters and throw for strikes and I think that's the best key for success for me."
The Gamecocks have found their spark offensively, especially at the top half of the lineup, as of late. They'll need the rest of their lineup to play to the same caliber to compete against the offense the Gators are producing. Florida is hitting .299 as a team and averaging just over 7.42 runs a game, which isn't too far off from what the Gamecocks are doing. South Carolina is hitting .286 combined this season and averaging 7.41 runs per game. The Gamecocks also have one more stolen base this year but the Gators have the advantage as far as extra-base hits with 17 more, meaning the pitching staff can't allow any slips this weekend.
Kingston spent two years as the head coach at South Florida before coming to the Gamecocks, so he's very familiar with the success the Gators have had. Even though they're the defending national champions, Kingston believes they're even better this season.
"Across the board, their average is up, their power is up, it just looks like players have improved," Kingston said. "You have guys that are getting better, they’re evolving as players. Just all around their offense is more productive. There's more power there, they're stealing bases well so it's just an offense that has evolved."
Despite the success Florida has found early in the season, South Carolina feels prepared and is eager to start SEC play. Taking on the No. 2 team in the country to open conference play isn't the easiest path, but according to Kingston, there's no easy way to get through the SEC.
"Well I don't know if you can use SEC and ease in the same sentence ... There's so many great teams in the league," Kingston said. "Every game is a grind, every game is going to be a great challenge for us so I don't think there's any right or wrong way to set up a schedule, I think you just see who's on your schedule, you prepare for them and you go get it. That's the only way you can approach it."
South Carolina and Florida open the three-game series on Friday with first pitch at 7 p.m.