Originally created 05/11/05

USC Aiken's playoff hopes aren't so bright



It was too good to be true.

USC Aiken's baseball team sat pretty in the region standings two weeks back. A Division II playoff berth seemed inevitable.

Then it happened.

The Pacers fell from a safe second in the South Atlantic Region to a perilous fourth position. USC Aiken then dropped two of three to hard-charging Armstrong Atlantic State this past weekend.

"We could've helped ourselves winning two out of three," Pacers coach Kenny Thomas said. "I've never seen anything like it. The breaks that went against us were unbelievable. But that's part of game."

USC Aiken plays host to Lander at 7 tonight at Roberto Hernandez Stadium in the first of a three-game set. The Pacers will face the Bearcats at 4 p.m. Thursday in the regular-season finale doubleheader.

USC Aiken needs a sweep - at the very least a series win - to stay in contention for the first postseason berth in Thomas' six-year reign. The top four region teams advance to the Division II Tournament next week.

Here's the current region standings: No. 1 North Florida (40-11), No. 2 Kennesaw State (33-19), No. 3 Francis Marion (34-14-1), No. 4 USC Aiken (37-16) and No. 5 Armstrong Atlantic State (33-14).

Region voters will choose the top four teams late Sunday night. Thomas said he might not hear word of postseason play until early Monday morning.

Before then, his USC Aiken squad must first take care of business against a sizzling Bearcats team. Lander (29-25) has won six of its past eight games, with its two losses coming in the final at-bat to Kennesaw State.

"I expect Lander to play extremely hard and to try and knock us out," Thomas said. "I expect them to come in and try to be the spoiler."

USC Aiken has a miniscule margin of error after dropping its series to the Pirates. In the two losses, the Pacers outperformed Armstrong Atlantic State in almost every key statistical category (hits, errors, ERA).

USC Aiken pitchers Steve Dunham and Peden Rucker had frustrating weekends. In a 4-3 Game 1 loss, Dunham allowed two unearned runs in the sixth inning to take the loss.

In Game 2, Rucker was holding his own until an eight-run fifth inning - kick-started by two Pacers errors. The sophomore left-hander allowed 10 runs to the Pirates in the 12-10 defeat, but only three runs were earned.

USC Aiken held on for a 5-4 victory in the final game to avoid the sweep.

"I felt good that they came back and won the third game," Thomas said. "After two close devastating losses, that third game was crucial."

"That was a good sign."

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.