Commentary: Tough stretch ahead for Holbrook’s Gamecocks

nwhite@thestate.comApril 22, 2013 

South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com

EXCUSE CHAD HOLBROOK if he’s a little dizzy from riding the SEC roller coaster this season. That thing is going up and down at a lightning-fast pace.

The Gamecocks rocketed back up the standings with a sweep of Kentucky over the weekend. That makes five consecutive sweeps — three on the good side and two on the bad — for them as they try to keep their bearings.

Holbrook isn’t complaining about whiplash from watching his team play. With a 31-10 overall record and 11-7 SEC mark, along with a ranking of No. 15 in the Baseball America Top 25, he likes where the Gamecocks are with 12 conference games left.

Only No. 2 LSU (37-4, 15-3 SEC) and No. 3 Vanderbilt (35-6, 16-2) have better SEC records than South Carolina, which sits in a two-way tie for third with Arkansas.

Holbrook also likes that his team responded to being swept twice by turning the tables on the next set of opponents.

“You just have to try to keep an even keel in this league, don’t get too high when things are going well and don’t get too low when you get your tail kicked because you’re going to get your tail kicked. That’s just the nature of this league,” he said.

The Gamecocks pulled off sweeps of Texas A&M and Tennessee after being swept by Arkansas and added this one of Kentucky after being swept at Florida.

“You have to pick yourself back up off the mat, and we have, not only after the Florida series but after the Arkansas series as well,” Holbrook said. “That shows me a little bit about the makeup of our team. I’m proud that they haven’t let it go south and they’ve fought like crazy to get back in this thing.”

They’re going to need to keep fighting, however, with a road series against LSU this weekend and a home series against Vanderbilt the following weekend. There’s not a tougher stretch of schedule for any team in the country.

The Gamecocks will need to play their best baseball of the season to survive, especially considering that their four series wins have come against teams that have losing conference records while their two series losses have come to teams that sport winning records.

Holbrook keeps hearing how good the Tigers and the Commodores are.

“If you look at it and say, ‘We’ve got six games against two of the top three teams in the country,’ it’s overwhelming almost,” he said. “We’ve got three on the road and three at home. Just battle and compete, try our best and hope we win a couple of them. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll come out on the plus end.”

But he adds that his players expect to win every game they play. Now that USC’s regular lineup and top pitchers appear to be healthy after incurring a string of injuries, Holbrook feels good about his team’s chances. Brison Celek has settled in as designated hitter and Jordan Montgomery has returned to the weekend rotation.

With Celek locked in, the Gamecocks used the same lineup for all three games against Kentucky and had a total of 35 hits, which included six doubles, a triple and four homers. Montgomery and Nolan Belcher have pitched well all season at the front of the rotation, while Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb have anchored the bullpen.

Now the Gamecocks must find a few more relievers to step up consistently in the bullpen to take the pressure off Westmoreland and Webb. Holbrook believes the ability is there.

“They just need to have a little bit of success and get some confidence going,” he said.

He promises to take the upcoming stretch of schedule “one game, one pitch, one at-bat at a time. Hopefully, after 30 of these league games, we’ll be in a decent spot.”

Even after riding this team’s roller coaster, he proudly will accept the resulting records.

“They’ve given me everything they’ve got,” he said. “They’ve handled adversity well. They’ve battled and maintained a positive attitude and got us in a good position.”

USC VS. GARDNER-WEBB

WHEN: Tuesday, 6 p.m.

WHERE: Keeter Stadium, Shelby, N.C.

RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5 FM

TELEVISION: None

SERIES: USC leads 2-0

LAST MEETING: USC beat the Bulldogs 11-1 in 2003

RECORDS: USC 31-10; Gardner-Webb 20-19-1

RANKINGS: USC is No. 15 in Baseball America Top 25

PITCHING MATCHUPS: USC RHP Colby Holmes, Sr., 4-2, 4.61 ERA vs. G-W RHP Hunter Smith, Fr., 1-0, 2.35 ERA

NOTES: This meeting will be a homecoming game for USC coach Chad Holbrook, who grew up in Shelby and attended high school there. His father, Eddie, served as the head basketball coach at G-W from 1969-78 before going to Furman. The game will not be played on the G-W campus but at Keeter Stadium in Shelby, which sits on the Shelby High campus. The 5,000-seat ballpark became the permanent home of the American Legion World Series in 2011. The Gamecocks are meeting the Bulldogs, who have lost five straight games and coming off a weekend sweep at the hands of Longwood, for the first time in 10 years and only the third time ever.

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