COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina lost the first two games of a three-game series at home against Florida and watched its hopes for a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship disappear.
But a victory in the finale against the Gators has given the Gamecocks reason to hope for redemption in the SEC baseball tournament.
"Last weekend was tough," outfielder and leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield said. "At the same time, we finished a game back of the SEC champions, so it hasn't been quite a down year. We're looking forward to the tournament and looking forward to proving we are one of the best teams in the country."
The 11-6 victory over the Gators helped South Carolina maintain its spot as second-best in the conference and third seed heading into Wednesday's opener against Ole Miss in Hoover, Ala.
South Carolina reached its perch because of starting pitching, coach Ray Tanner's skill in using his bullpen and the knack for getting runs in the clutch. Those traits failed in the first two games of the decisive series with Florida.
The Gamecocks scored just four runs and stranded 18 runners in the two losses. In the first game, two of South Carolina's top three hitters, Merrifield and Jackie Bradley Jr., struck out with the bases loaded and the team trailing 3-1.
South Carolina aces Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson pitched well but were each tagged with losses, the first time all year they had lost in the same series.
Tanner said it was frustrating to lose before a record-setting crowd of 8,242 last Friday when things looked so promising.
"Going back, you're disappointed you had a chance to win the league at home and you didn't win it," he said. "What could you have done differently? Well, not a lot. A hit here or there could've changed the outcome. But (Florida) could say the same thing."
Tanner liked how his team didn't give up, beating Florida in a game that could influence its chances for the NCAA tournament and one of the top eight national seeds who would host a best-of-three super regional series if they advanced that far.
"I believe we need to win a game or two in the tournament in order to host a super regional," said senior righty Cooper, who was 10-0 before losing to the Gators last Thursday night.
Only once in the past five SEC tournaments have the Gamecocks won more than one game in the double-elimination format. South Carolina is seeking its first SEC tournament title since 2004, which was also the final year of a three-year stretch of appearances in the College World Series.
Tanner has added some motivation to win it all. Players can stay at the tournament through the weekend or endure two-a-day workouts in Columbia if they exit the tournament earlier than expected.
There's also the motivation of throwing an on-field party, much like the Gators did when they piled on top of each other on the mound on South Carolina infield to celebrate their title.
"We've been a part of a big time game and were on the losing end of it," said Merrifield, a junior who leads the club with 77 hits and 12 homers. "But I think our guys have gained some experience from it and I think it will help us in the future."