Dallas Kuechel's performance last Sunday was just the cherry on top for a weekend in which the Diamond Hogs might have clinched a spot at the table come the SEC tourney. The sophomore's eight scoreless innings sprung out of nowhere to end the final home series of a 2008 season that has been rife with question marks in the rotation. Before South Carolina's traditionally dangerous Justin Smoak eked out a single to start the ninth, Keuchel looked like he might go the distance.
After Keuchel left to a standing ovation, the Gamecocks finally managed to add one to their 92 home runs total on the season, with the wind carrying James Darnell's high floater off of reliever Mike Bolsinger out of the park. Following that one blip, Bolsinger slammed the door shut. I'm surprised to see the late-season push motored from the mound, but better late than never.
The game closed off a dramatic, nail-bitten series for our boys. Jacob House hit a grand slam in the ninth to lift the Hogs over the Gamecocks on Friday night, and Cliff Springston, along with Bolsinger, patched together a fine performance on a dreary Saturday afternoon that allowed the offense to squeak by yet again.
If the Diamond Hogs can will their way to a series win this weekend against a pitiful Mississippi State team, they can salvage what has been for the most part a frustrating season.
A large chunk of the SEC teams are just over .500 in conference play, so this last week's going be a bit like watching the NBA Western Division duke it out for a playoff spot, with every game a do-or-die scenario. Only the top eight will make it to the SEC tournament, and there's currently a four-way tie a game ahead of the Razorbacks between Alabama, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Florida. Those teams are all meeting up with tougher opponents this weekend, but one slip could cause the fall for our Hogs. The trip to Starkville will make or break the season.
I hate words like "scrap" and "grit" and "clutch," but this is when people usually bust them out. I think "focus" might be a better term for what it takes to clinch a tournament berth in this fashion. Like the basketball team, the Diamond Hogs just seem to be seeing things a little clearer with their back to the wall. For fans, there's nothing more riveting than watching a team fight their way off the ropes.
Baseball is the only sport that can be every bit as good via radio. That should be consolation enough for those of us who won't be able to make the trip east. Even Chuck Barrett isn't a bad enough play-by-play man to foul this drama up. Fire up the barbecue, tune in on the AM dial, and while away a beautiful summer day listening to our state team play their hearts out.