South Carolina baseball Chad Holbrook looked at his team at the start of the season and knew he was going to need contributions from freshman pitchers such as Wil Crowe, Taylor Widener, Reed Scott and Josh Reagan.
But he looked at his freshman position players and didn’t know how much any of them would play, given the veteran nature of his talented everyday lineup.
A string of recent injuries to those regulars, however, has altered the equation as Holbrook filled out his lineup card over the last month.
When outfielders Connor Bright and Elliott Caldwell went out, Gene Cone stepped in.
When infielders Max Schrock and Joey Pankake came up hurt, Jordan Gore got a chance. When catcher Grayson Greiner needed rest for his tired legs or sore thumb, Logan Koch got the call.
“It’s kind of different coming in and not playing a lot, but when we’ve gotten an opportunity, we’ve taken advantage of it a little bit. I’m really proud of the freshman class,” Gore said. “It’s been great helping the team. It’s fun.”
Gore, a middle infielder from Conway, drilled a walk-off solo homer in the 14th inning of a 3-2 win over Tennessee last month. His RBI single in the ninth inning last Saturday gave the Gamecocks a 3-2 victory over Auburn that snapped a five-game losing streak.
An RBI double by Cone, an outfielder from Columbia’s Spring Valley High, tied that same game against Auburn. He followed it with the game-winning sacrifice fly last Sunday in a 4-3 series-clinching win over the Tigers. And his three hits Wednesday helped the Gamecocks defeat USC Upstate 6-1.
Holbrook loves the attitude both players bring to the ballpark.
“Gene and Jordan will fight you. They’re tough. They’re got a little edge about them,” Holbrook said. “This league is not for the meek. Those two kids aren’t that way. They’re far from meek. They’re just foxhole-type guys. I like to put those guys in the lineup, and I like to play them because they’re going to give you everything they’ve got. They’re going to compete each and every pitch.”
The 6-foot, 165-pound Cone, who has pulled his average up to .227 to go with seven RBIs in 25 games, including 10 starts, has gained confidence not just from his recent success but also his increased playing time.
“I’m just grateful to get out there as much as I can and just try to fill some roles,” Cone said. “It’s tough not being an everyday guy. You’ve just got to battle and grind through the at-bats to produce something.”
Koch, who has started six games while batting .280, said it was an adjustment shaking off the early season nerves while getting used to the speed of the game.
“It’s getting easier to be out here, and I’m getting more comfortable. I feel like any time they call on me, I’m ready to go,” Koch said.
The 5-11, 200-pound Koch started both midweek games behind the plate this week, wins over Davidson and USC Upstate, in place of Greiner. It will help the Team USA junior be ready for the important Alabama series.
“For Logan to give Grayson some rest and not have to catch , and yet we still win, that was a very, very important contribution,” Holbrook said. “Our players who haven’t been playing are certainly capable of performing and excelling.”
Junior first baseman Kyle Martin said the freshmen have earned respect from the veterans for their recent performances, and he expects them to get better. Holbrook seconds that motion.
“They’re not in awe of playing in this league. That’s why they’ve had some success,” he said. “Their futures are bright. There’s no question about that.”
Koch said the freshmen have learned plenty watching that gifted junior class go about its business while competing at the highest level of the college game.
“I feel like our freshman class is really scrappy,” Koch said. “We don’t have that big ego or that standout thing. We’re just all together as one.”
The 6-0, 160-pound Gore, whose .154 average belies his contributions over 21 games, including eight starts, also hit a big solo homer in a 6-5 loss to Florida. But it was the Tennessee long ball that made him feel like he really belonged.
“It was awesome. Coming around third (base) and seeing everybody at home (plate), it hit me then. It was pretty cool,” Gore said. “That’s why we came here. We wanted to be in the big spot so we can help our team win.”