Commentary: SEC play not a hit for Gamecocks

Struggles at the plate starting to hurt USC

March 25, 2013 

South Carolina's LB Dantzler reacts after striking out during the fourth inning of the game Saturday between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Arkansas Razorbacks at Carolina Stadium.

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com

WHAT A difference a weekend makes.

The South Carolina baseball team was riding high at 18-3 and No. 5 in Baseball America’s Top 25 entering the SEC series against Arkansas. Today, the Gamecocks are 18-6 — after being swept in a weekend home series for the first time since 1999 — and ranked No. 17.

Over the course of three losses to the Razorbacks, the Gamecocks saw their team batting average plummet from .287 to .269 and their team ERA jump from 2.18 to 2.76. Chad Holbrook said he didn’t like watching his team getting pushed around at Carolina Stadium, but that’s exactly what Arkansas did. That left the Razorbacks looking much more like a national title contender than the banged-up and tentative Gamecocks.

Yes, USC still is missing left-hander Jordan Montgomery and left-fielder Graham Saiko due to injuries, but the issues run deeper. The 2011 championship team proved multiple injuries don’t have to derail a season if the next guy steps up.

The biggest issue six games into conference play — where the Gamecocks are now 2-4 — is the lack of offensive production. One weekend after batting .188 in winning the series against Missouri, the Gamecocks batted .155 against Arkansas with two of their 15 hits in the series going for extra bases.

“I just thought we would be a little bit better offensively than we’ve showed through these six games in SEC play. We’ve got to get better, and we will,” he said.

He spoke of making changes, and it is safe to say that he meant in both his hitters’ approach at the plate as well which players make up the lineup. LB Danztler and Joey Pankake have shown the most consistency at the plate — combining for a .333 average, 12 homers and 46 RBIs — but even they haven’t gotten on track in SEC play.

On the other end of the spectrum, outfielders T.J. Costen and Shon Carson have combined to start 24 games but have struggled with a .220 average, six RBIs and 32 strikeouts between them. Throw in a revolving door of eight players at designated hitter — which has allowed none of them to get into a rhythm — and their combined .200 average and 28 strikeouts give you a recipe for an inconsistent attack. It’s probably time to find out if veteran bats such as Erik Payne, Kyle Martin and Sean Sullivan can help the team on a more frequent basis.

Holbrook is right about the talent being in place. Guys such as Grayson Greiner, Tanner English and Max Schrock can play, but they are still trying to discover more consistency from an offensive standpoint.

Despite one bad inning from Evan Beal, who has been very good this season, in the opener against Arkansas, the pitching remains strong. Montgomery’s return in two weeks will help, and a rebound by struggling senior Colby Holmes also would be helpful. But Nolan Belcher and Tyler Webb have pitched well in leading this staff.

Defensively, the Gamecocks have performed solidly, although the left side of the infield has faltered, especially Pankake at shortstop. His erratic play — eight errors and an .887 fielding percentage — had Holbrook saying Saturday that he must play much better if he’s going to anchor the infield.

The sweep had everyone in garnet looking back to last season’s 1-5 start in the conference for inspiration. Those Gamecocks rebounded to go 18-11 and win an SEC East. Both Dantzler and Webb believe this team can learn from that experience. Of course, that team also had championship standouts such as Michael Roth, Matt Price, Christian Walker and Evan Marzilli.

“It’s a long season ahead of us. We’ve been down this road before. It’s certainly no time to push any panic button. But we need to play better,” Holbrook said. “You can get hot, and I think our guys know that. We’ve got some experience in there and that helps. Digging yourself out of a hole in this league is not easy.”

No, it isn’t. And with 24 conference games left, Holbrook will find out soon if his players have it in them to turned the season around and start riding high again.

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WHO: USC (18-6) vs. Charleston (13-10)

WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Patriots Point Field, Charleston

RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5

TV: None

SERIES: USC leads 45-6

LAST MEETING: The teams split a pair of games last season. USC won 7-0 in Charleston, and Charleston won 4-3 in Columbia.

PITCHING MATCHUPS: USC RHP Colby Holmes, Sr., 1-2, 5.16 ERA vs. Charleston RHP Nathan Helvey, Fr., 2-1, 3.42 ERA

NOTES: With his 90th career appearance Sunday, LHP Tyler Webb has moved to third on USC’s all-time list behind Matt Price (102) and Michael Roth (94). … USC ranks second in the SEC with 19 homers. … The pitching staff has 214 strikeouts in 215 innings.

Neil White

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