COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina first baseman Christian Walker doesn’t mind sharing, not when he says everyone knows who the true Southeastern Conference champs are anyway.
The SEC record books will forever list the Gamecocks as co-champions at 22-8 in league play this season alongside Florida and Vanderbilt. South Carolina, though, took three-game series from both its SEC Eastern Division rivals during the year and grabbed the No. 1 seed for this week’s SEC tournament.
Walker said the defending national champion Gamecocks worked hard for their spot atop the standings. “We’re not going to let the co- part ruin it for us,” he said.
South Carolina coach Ray Tanner sure hasn’t.
It was an uphill battle for the Gamecocks to win the SEC regular-season crown for the first since 2002. They had to overcome the loss of critical personnel from last year’s CWS team, including pitchers Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson and outfielder Whit Merrifield. A rash of injuries also sidelined star player Jackie Bradley Jr. for much of the past month.
“For all the adversity that we faced this year, for the guys to end up where they did, I couldn’t be more proud,” Tanner said.
South Carolina got a bit more validation Monday when both the Collegiate Baseball and Baseball America rankings put the Gamecocks at No. 1.
The Gamecocks appear to be the kind of group that can handle the top spot heading into the postseason.
They lost their first game at the College World Series a year ago before reeling off six straight games to win the title. Despite mounting injuries — starting outfielder Adam Matthews has been out of the lineup since mid-April with hamstring issues — the Gamecocks dropped just one of their 10 SEC series.
South Carolina looked like its luck might have run out when it managed only five hits in a 2-1 loss at Alabama to start the final series. But the Gamecocks rebounded with consecutive victories, the last a 3-2 win in which closer Matt Price got out of a two-out, two-on jam in Alabama’s eighth to claim their share of the title.
“We still see that we’re SEC champions,” said Michael Roth, South Carolina’s top starting pitcher who leads the SEC with a 1.28 ERA. “We did come together as a team because we had a lot of stuff to go through.
“It shows what kind of team we are.”
The Gamecocks will likely have to rely on those qualities the rest of the postseason. Tanner says while Bradley, a junior outfielder expected to go in the first round, should have the cast on his wrist removed Friday there’s no timetable for him to play soon.
Matthews looked better in chasing down balls Monday before the team left for the Hoover, Ala., tournament site, but also hasn’t yet shown the comfort to return.
Versatile catcher-designated hitter Brady Thomas missed the last regular-season game with a foot injury. And reliever John Taylor has been bothered with a stomach virus and didn’t travel with the team back to Alabama, Tanner said.
Taylor is expected to travel separately once he feels better.
Tanner said his team is looking to repeat, starting this week.
A year ago, the Gamecocks were one of the SEC tournament’s biggest surprises, going 0-2 and touching off a host of theories about how to correct their problems.
A month later they were College World Series champs.
Many thought the long layoff before the start of the NCAA tournament gave South Carolina a chance to rest and rebound. Tanner is not buying it. He said his players were angry about their early exit and entered the NCAAs with a purpose.
Schedule and starting times for the opening round of the SEC baseball tournament in Hoover on Wednesday through Sunday.
Game 1: Alabama (32-24) vs. Arkansas (36-18), 9:30 a.m. (CSS)
Game 2: Mississippi State (34-21) vs. Florida (41-15), 30 minutes after Game 1 (CSS)
Game 3: Auburn (29-27) vs. South Carolina (44-12), 4:30 p.m. (CSS)
Game 4: Georgia (28-28) vs. Vanderbilt (44-9), 30 minutes after Game 3 (CSS)
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