STILL SAVORING South Carolina’s series-deciding victory against Alabama on Sunday at Carolina Stadium, Chad Holbrook was feeling a little deja vu.
“This game reminded me of that Sunday game at Mississippi State,” Holbrook said of another series-deciding victory for USC in late April of 2011.
In both of those games, USC played with a makeshift lineup due to a spate of injuries. Ultimately, we might find out that the 2014 edition of USC baseball will grow through injuries like the eventual national champions of 2011.
“Maybe, hopefully, we’ll look back at this and say we became a better team because of the injuries that we faced,” Holbrook said. “Maybe we’ll look back in the middle of June and say it was a blessing that we found out more about our team because of the kids we had to put in there.”
USC’s irritating rash of injuries has forced Holbrook to look further down the bench over the past few weeks, and Sunday he ran out a lineup that was missing starters Connor Bright, Elliott Caldwell and Max Schrock.
In their places, Holbrook inserted freshmen Gene Cone in right field, Jordan Gore at second base and Taylor Widener at DH. Throw in pitcher Wil Crowe, and Holbrook started a quartet of first-year players.
Cone delivered the game’s biggest hit, a two-run single in the sixth inning that gave USC a 5-3 lead it never lost. Gore contributed three singles and an RBI. Widener walked, scored a run and set up another run with a sacrifice bunt.
“Sometimes, some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” Holbrook said. “Sometimes, you learn a lot more about your team and how good you can become by putting somebody in there that you might not normally put in there.”
What Holbrook is finding out is that even if Bright, Caldwell and Schrock cannot return to the lineup soon – in Schrock’s case, perhaps not this season – he has players capable of filling in without his team missing a beat.
Even with his team healthy down the road, Holbrook said he will find playing time for Cone in the outfield and Gore at DH, a position where USC has struggled to find a consistent bat.
“Gene Cone and Jordan Gore, and even Widener the last two days,” Holbrook said, “they have the right makeup and they’re better than I thought they were, which in turn is going to make our team better.”
That line of thinking had Holbrook remembering that Sunday afternoon game in 2011 at Mississippi State. The USC starting outfield of Jackie Bradley, Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews was sidelined, Bradley with a broken wrist, Marzilli with a heart condition and Matthews with a hamstring pull.
The new outfield that day featured Steven Neff in left field, DeSean Anderson in center and Jake Williams in right. Williams contributed four hits in the 13-4 victory and Anderson had three hits, including two doubles.
What USC found through injuries is that it could build depth and count on reserves to produce when needed. Neff and Williams made significant contributions as USC went 24-6 the remainder of the season and captured the national title.
A few weeks after the Mississippi State win, Neff belted a solo home run in USC’s 3-2 victory against Alabama that clinched a share of the SEC regular-season championship. Williams’ memorable throw from left field helped save a USC victory against Florida in the College World Series. Robert Beary, a backup catcher, also contributed behind the plate and in the outfield when starting catcher Brady Thomas was injured.
From that victory against Mississippi State was born the team motto “Win Anyway,” a chant inspired by its ability to overcome any kind of adversity and still manage to win. The slogan remains on a wall that greets players as they leave the USC clubhouse. It also is the name of Holbrook’s foundation.
As long as USC keeps winning games like it did Sunday with a makeshift lineup, Holbrook said that “Win Anyway” slogan “ain’t going to change.”