The Gamecocks have another showdown series this weekend, hosting Tennessee Tech in a three-game set on a weekend that has the potential to shake up the entire upper half of the Ohio Valley Conference standings.
The third-place Gamecocks (20-16, 12-3 OVC) currently trail the second-place Golden Eagles by a game and a half, but that’s only because Tech (27-10, 15-3) has played an extra weekend series against one of the second-division teams in the league; they’re tied in the loss column. Meanwhile, league-leading Belmont will be playing fourth-place preseason favorite Austin Peay.
“We’ve gotten to this point in the season, and by the way we have played and (Tech) has played, we put ourselves in position that it is a big weekend,” Case said. “If you lose four more games it’s kind of another weekend, but it’s not another weekend. We have an opportunity against one of the top teams in our league. We’ve put ourselves in position that this is a big week.”
But it’s only the beginning. Next week, they visit dangerous Southeast Missouri, and the following week they host Belmont. The top two teams in the standings draw first-round byes in the OVC Tournament.
“It’ll be a dogfight these last five weeks,” Case said. “It’s all three of the teams coming up and Austin Peay ... that’s probably where the top two are going to come from,” Case said. “We need to play well and keep in contention for that. We sit here after five weeks — halfway through — and we have a shot at that. Whether we’re able to maintain it, that’s what’s left to find out. Hopefully we can.”
The Gamecocks go into the series having won nine of their last 11 games since losing the first two of the Austin Peay series. Last week they swept Murray State with three come-from-behind wins, taking one in 15 innings and another with a four-run ninth, highlighted by a two-run homer from Coty Blanchard, who played two games at first base for the first time in his career because it was the best lineup for the Gamecocks with Adam Miller out with an injury. Blanchard has now played all four infield positions in his JSU career.
The Gamecocks have now won six games in their final at-bat this season, including four of their last seven wins. Eight of their last 10 wins have been recorded by non-starters, bolstering the idea they are so deep in arms Case “won’t be afraid” to bring a pitcher in from the bullpen.
“We’ve been in a lot of dogfights,” Case said. “There are times I’m still concerned about the quality of our play. There are times I don’t know that we’re playing great baseball, but I think what we have done is play very hard. There hasn’t been an ounce of give-up in us. We’ve been down at times lately but kept scrapping. That’s something our team has prided itself on — we’re going to battle for nine innings.
“I do think there are some things that are going in a pretty good direction for us. I hope from the standpoint of playing the game the right way we continue to try to get better at that.”
Adding to the dynamic of the series is the fact JSU is playing for the first time since completing semester exams. They’ve won series the previous two years coming out of exams, but always lost the series opener, and they were swept in a two-game series the year before.
“It’s definitely a concern,” Case said. “I told them Sunday after the (Murray State) game I want 95 percent of their thought to go into finishing as strong as they can in the classroom. Practice hasn’t gone over (90 minutes) this week. By the time we get to Friday, they’ll be done with that. I hope we can turn it and all of a sudden jump back into that competitive mode.”
Tech, which has won six of its last seven, including two over Peay and a Wednesday win over No. 2 Vanderbilt, brings the top hitting team in the OVC into the series. The Golden Eagles are batting .299 as a team and have the top two RBI producers — Zach Stephens (45) and Brandon Thomasson (42). Thomasson is tied for the league lead in homers (10).
The Golden Eagles are expected to start Tristan Archer (6-2, 3.05), Ross Spurgeon (2-1, 2.38) and Jacob Honea (1-1, 6.00). Since all three are right-handers, look for the Gamecocks to give Pascal Petrongolo some time off and use Ty Pierce and Zach Eibert as the designated hitter.
The Gamecocks will start Casey Antley (4-3, 4.50) and Taylor Shields (5-2, 3.35) in the first two games. The Sunday slot that had belonged to Adam Polk (2-5, 5.73) could be in for a change with Tony Urban (2-0, 5.74) or Kurt Lipscomb (0-4, 9.53), who may be straightening out some early-season struggles.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.