And it couldn’t come at a better time.
The start of the season didn’t go anywhere near the way the Gamecocks expected, but they open their Ohio Valley Conference schedule today at Eastern Kentucky where everybody is 0-0.
And they should have a little leg up. The Gamecocks (6-14) are the hottest team in the conference, taking a league-best four-game winning streak into the series.
“I absolutely feel like we’re in as good of a position as we can be coming from where we started the season,” JSU senior outfielder Kyle Bluestein said. “With as many struggles as we had early and as many problems for us, a four-game winning streak now, things are starting to come around.
“I am confident where we’re at right now. Guys in the locker room and on the field know what it’s like to start getting on a roll and getting on the winning side of things and how much better it feels than to be on the loss side. Guys are ready. There’s a lot more confidence around the locker room. Guys are having fun. I think we’re in a good spot.”
Theories for their slowest start since before 1970 abound. They didn’t hit with runners on base or in scoring position. They gave up big innings. They gave up runs immediately after they put runs on the board themselves.
When the season-opening slump was at its low point, the players simply decided to forget all that was going wrong and focus on moving forward.
During the four-game winning streak, the Gamecocks are hitting .336 and have a 3.25 ERA. The bullpen has allowed only one earned run in the stretch, covering 20 1/3 innings. Closer Todd Hornsby saved three of the wins and Travis Stout has emerged as a force, especially against right-handed hitters, pounding the bottom of the strike zone.
During the 2-14 start they were hitting .232 at a team and had a 6.69 team ERA.
“We’re finding ways to win now where we weren’t earlier,” Bluestein said.
While the Gamecocks’ fortunes seem to have turned, head coach Jim Case cautions against burying what happened at the start of the season in the memory banks.
“I don’t want us to forget that,” he said. “I want us to remember how bad it feels when you’re not playing hard and we’re not winning the way that we can.”
This year, the OVC has gone to a series format more in line with the rest of college baseball. The teams will play three single games instead of a Saturday doubleheader and Sunday single game, although the threat of inclement weather this weekend may alter that plan.
“It’s more like baseball,” Case said. “College baseball is not supposed to be seven-inning games. I think you have a better opportunity to see who the best teams are at the end of it, and that’s something as a league we felt strongly about. All things being equal, they need to be nine-inning games.”
The Gamecocks are expected to start senior right-hander Aaron Elias (0-3, 5.13), senior left-hander Daniel Watts (1-3, 8.28) and either junior right-hander Hunter Rivers (0-2, 5.56) or sophomore right-hander Bradley Roulston (0-1, 5.48).
The Colonels (7-13), who’ll be trying to shake a four-game losing streak, will counter with senior right-hander Matt Harris (2-2, 8.16), senior left-hander Greg Terry (1-2, 6.86) and junior lefty Shane Grimm (1-4, 4.81).
EKU’s top player is Richie Rodriguez. The senior shortstop leads the Colonels in hitting (.338), homers (8) and RBIs (22), and has started every game at his position — 183 consecutive — since his arrival on campus.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.