UNBEKNOWNST to most, South Carolina might have won its Columbia Regional opener against Saint Louis in the second inning of Friday night’s game at Carolina Stadium.
That is when USC first baseman Kyle Martin innocently popped out to the Saint Louis shortstop in shallow left field, the result of a weak and defensive swing. As Martin turned right and headed back to the dugout, he was greeted by Brian Buscher, USC’s first base coach.
Buscher got close to Martin’s right ear, making certain the sophomore from Greenville blocked out any crowd noise and heard his message loud and clear.
“Be there if you want to be there,” Martin recalled Buscher saying. “Swing the bat if you want to swing the bat, or else we can find somebody else who can.”
Buscher will not tolerate anything but an aggressive approach at the plate from Martin. That swing-like-you-mean-it method of hitting paid off in the eighth inning of USC’s 7-3 victory.
The game was tied at 3 with one out when Martin came to bat in the eighth. Joey Pankake represented the potential go-ahead run at third base, and Grayson Greiner stood at first base. A more-aggressive approach by Martin produced a single in the fourth inning and a solid at-bat before a ground out in the sixth inning.
The first pitch from Saint Louis right-handed reliever Marco Mejia was a fastball for a strike. The next pitch, a changeup, sailed out of the strike zone for a ball to the left-handed swinging Martin.
Mejia’s third offering was a slider down in the strike zone and on the inside portion of home plate. Martin swung and pounded the ball into the ground in front of home plate. It bounded high in the air toward Saint Louis first baseman Mike Vigliarolo.
“I was holding the first baseman’s feet down there,” Buscher said with a laugh. “I fell to my knees. I wanted it to get over his head.”
Vigliarolo, who stands 6-foot-1, leaped as high as he could. He said the ball grazed the tip of his glove in what he called a “tough break” for the Billikens and rolled into right field.
Pankake raced home with what proved to be the game-winning run.
“That helped out a lot,” Martin said, rather sheepishly in the postgame press conference, of his big hit. “I’m glad I got the opportunity to be up there.”
Martin got his 13th start of the season for defensive reasons. A recent fielding slump by LB Dantzler, the club’s first baseman through most of the regular season, forced coach Chad Holbrook’s hand and Martin’s glove into the lineup.
Martin has been used primarily as a pinch-hitter and designated hitter over the past two seasons. It is an assignment that Buscher can relate to, and one that the hitting coach says is the most difficult in all of baseball.
“When we’re in the cage working, I try to tell him it’s a process, and when you get your chance in there, you’ve got to make the most of it,” said Buscher, who spent three seasons in the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins primarily as a reserve. “Don’t go in there taking pitches. You’ve got to be aggressive.”
Staying fresh and remaining confident when you are used sparingly becomes a mind game, even for the most seasoned veterans at the big-league level, let alone for a 20-year-old in his second season of college baseball.
“To me, that was the hardest part about playing,” Buscher said. “Coming off the bench, when you do come off the bench to pinch-hit, it’s usually in a close game and you’re down a little bit and you’ve got their No. 1 closer or their set-up guy you’re facing.”
Buscher said most of his guidance with Martin is between the ears, although he has worked to shorten his swing while making certain it does not take away from his aggressiveness at the plate.
Holbrook is confident that Martin will earn the first-base job full-time next season, and after Friday’s two-hit showing he is likely to pen his name into the starting lineup for the remainder of this postseason.
If nothing else, Martin is proving to have a flare for the dramatic. A year ago in the second round of the same regional, Martin led off the bottom of the ninth inning against Clemson with a bloop single over second base. T.J. Costen pinch-ran for Martin and scored the tying run in a game that USC eventually won in the 12th inning.
This time, on Friday, Martin avoided getting an earful from his first base coach by producing the game-winning run and thereby sending USC into Saturday’s winners’ bracket.