The Daily Gamecock

Gamecocks meet SEC West leaders

Catcher Grayson Greiner cleared to play

Head baseball coach Chad Holbrook doesn’t think this weekend’s series against Alabama will make or break the Gamecocks’ chances of earning a national seed in the NCAA tournament.

But with the Crimson Tide coming to town with the SEC’s best record, the coach called this weekend’s three-game set the “biggest series of the year.”

“We certainly have our hands full with Alabama,” Holbrook said. “Speaking with a lot of coaches around the league, the feedback I get is they’re the most talented team in the league.”

The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 18 by the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, but by many accounts, this weekend will be a top-10 meeting. Perfect Game, Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball all rank Alabama eighth in the country, while the Gamecocks cracked the top 10 in the ESPN/USA Today and Perfect Game rankings at No. 8 and 10, respectively.

Alabama’s run to the top of the SEC has been a group effort. The Crimson Tide doesn’t rank in the top of virtually any of the significant statistical categories, including batting average, hits, home runs, run or earned run average.

While Alabama’s success this season has surprised some, Holbrook said those close to the conference knew not to take the Crimson Tide lightly.

“It was on every coach in our league’s radar because of what they did last year,” Holbrook said. “We knew that they were going to be one of the top teams in the West.”

Alabama now leads the SEC’s western division. The Gamecocks occupy the No. 2 spot in the East, two games behind division leader Florida.

When the two teams open up the series Friday, all signs indicate a pitchers’ duel between junior lefty Jordan Montgomery and Alabama’s ace, Spencer Turnbull. Both starting pitchers have earned five wins in 10 starts, with Montgomery touting a 3.62 earned run average and Turnbull amassing a 2.14 mark.

“Turnbull, the kid pitching (against South Carolina Friday), is electric,” Holbrook said. “He’s got great stuff; he’s a first-round type Friday night guy in this league. We couldn’t manage a hit against him his freshman year here in 2012.”

Both Montgomery and Turnbull are coming off solid starts in their last time on the mound.

Montgomery turned in a complete game four-hitter in a loss last weekend, and Turnbull struck out a career-high eight batters in 6 1/3 innings last Friday against Tennessee.

From the plate, the Gamecocks are starting to see some ramped up production after a slump in which the South Carolina offense was anemic.

The Gamecocks have outscored their opponents 21-5 on their current four-game winning streak, thanks in large part to junior Kyle Martin’s recent success. Martin has rattled off an 11-game hitting streak, including a career-high four hits in South Carolina’s last game against USC Upstate.

“We’re kind of coming together, so hopefully that carries on,” Martin said. “Alabama’s a great team, and it’s going to be a tough weekend, so if we play the way we have been and play the way we can, we’ll pull through.”

Martin’s knee has been bothering him, but the ailment is nothing that will keep him out of any games this weekend.

Returning to the lineup for the series will be junior outfielder Connor Bright, who has been dealing with an elbow injury, and junior catcher Grayson Greiner will also be active against Alabama after injuring his head Wednesday night.

Junior Elliott Caldwell and sophomore Max Schrock will remain sidelined with back injuries.

Though it’s just one series, this weekend’s set against Alabama could serve as a gauge for just how good this year’s South Carolina team is. A series victory would go a long way in securing a national seed for the Gamecocks, and it wouldn’t hurt their chances at an SEC title either.

“All in all, our kids are excited. They understand it’s a big weekend,” Holbrook said. “They’re excited about playing at home, in front of their fans. It should be a great atmosphere at Carolina Stadium.”