The USC baseball lineup limps along in SEC

nwhite@ thestate.com (803) 771-8643April 15, 2014 

OVER THE COURSE of a 56-game regular season, every college baseball team is going to run into adversity. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.

That time is now for the South Carolina baseball team after losing consecutive SEC series for the first time since early in the 2012 season. Two weeks ago, the Gamecocks were 25-3 overall, 6-3 in the SEC, and ranked No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America.

But after series losses to Arkansas on the road and Florida at home, they have fallen to 28-7 overall, 8-7 in the SEC, and dropped out of the Baseball America Top 10 for the first time all season to No. 11.

To make matters more difficult, the Gamecocks enter a five-game week – Charleston Southern, The Citadel, and the Auburn series – with a host of starting players not at full-speed.

Not expected to play Tuesday night at home against the Buccaneers are third baseman Joey Pankake (hamstring), second baseman Max Schrock (illness), shortstop Marcus Mooney (concussion) and right fielder Connor Bright (elbow).

It’s not certain when those players will return, but that leaves USC coach Chad Holbrook working to put together patchwork lineups. He’s convinced the players will respond in the right way to the challenge, even after letting two games slip against the Gators in the late innings.

“I’ve been around here long enough to know that this program prides itself on playing with toughness, playing with pride and playing with emotion,” Holbrook said. “When the chips are down, I think we can circle the wagons with the best of them. That’s what I expect to see. There’s something special about wearing this uniform.”

Holbrook understands his team could have swept the series with the Gators. The Gamecocks led by three runs after seven innings in Saturday’s 13-inning 4-3 loss, and they led by two runs after seven innings in Sunday’s 6-5 loss. But the depth of Florida’s bullpen proved to be stronger over the final two games, as Holbrook relied on four relievers while Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan used eight relievers.

The Gamecocks enter the stretch run of conference play with three road series – Auburn (21-16, 6-9), Georgia (21-14, 7-7) and No. 18 Vanderbilt (27-10, 7-8) – and two home series against No. 8 Alabama (24-11, 10-5) and Missouri (17-17, 6-9).

“Our backs are against the wall a little bit, because in the last half (of the SEC season) we’ve got nine road games and only six at home. So, we’ll find out how tough of a team we are,” he said.

The Gamecocks are one game behind No. 9 Florida (23-13, 9-6) for first place in the SEC East, but they must get back to swinging the bats as well as they did earlier in the season. In the two losses to Arkansas, they scored a combined one run; in the two losses to Florida, they left 28 runners on base, 15 in scoring position.

Holbrook knows that’s not going to cut it as the Gamecocks move forward, but he understands his players have the ability to turn it into a bump in the road as they make their annual push toward postseason play.

“I still consider our team fortunate. We’re one game off the pace,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve swung the bats well, and I don’t think we’ve played in league play the way we’re capable of playing. We’ve got to dust ourselves off and get back to work and see if we can play better.”

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