A year ago, Jeffery Jones lost his first base job to Nick Ebert, who proceeded to put together an All-SEC season. With Ebert academically ineligible to start this season, Jones began to re-stake his claim on the job in South Carolina's season-opening victory against Duquesne on Friday afternoon.
In his first two at-bats, Jones drilled a pair of home runs, a solo shot in the first inning and a grand slam in the eight-run third, to lead the No. 10 Gamecocks to a 10-3 victory before a crowd of 6,380 at Carolina Stadium.
"I feel like I can contribute to the team and drive in runs," said Jones, who batted cleanup. "Being in the middle of the lineup, that's my job."
The senior from Fort Worth, Texas, a transfer from Navarro (Texas) Junior College, doubled his home-run output from last season when he had 12 RBIs and a .228 batting average in 79 at-bats. His early-season struggles cracked the door for Ebert, who stepped in and batted .321 with 23 homers and 72 RBIs. But Ebert's academic woes, the result of not making enough progress toward his psychology degree, gave Jones the opportunity to win the spot back in preseason practices.
"He's been very impressive," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "He's a great practice player. He's worked extremely hard. When you make an investment, you have a chance to get a return."
Tanner cited Jones' work in the weight room over the summer, while Jones credited Tanner pushing him on being more aggressive as a hitter.
"There's never been any question that he can hit," Tanner said. "If he continues to do that, he's going to get more opportunities."
"Coach Tanner likes guys who can hit. As long as I hit, I'll be in the lineup," he said.
With Ebert's return date uncertain - possibly not until the end of the spring semester - the left-handed-hitting Jones' five-RBI day is the first sign that the Gamecocks may be fine. He narrowly missed a third home run in the sixth when he hooked a ball just to the other side of the right-field foul pole. But he isn't taking anything for granted upon Ebert's return.
"Nick is a great hitter. But whenever he comes back, it's going to be his job probably," Jones said.
Senior right-hander Blake Cooper threw five innings to pick up the victory, the 22nd of his career, in his first opening-day start. Cooper gave up two runs on three hits and two walks and struck out seven. Sophomore left-hander Nolan Belcher added two innings of scoreless relief.
"Blake was throwing the ball well," Tanner said. "He was getting behind a little bit, but he was certainly competitive."
The Gamecocks now hold a 20-0 series lead against Duquesne, which is dropping baseball after this season. The two teams meet again today at 3 p.m. Junior right-hander Sam Dyson, who finished 9-4 last season, will start for USC, but he will be limited to less than 50 pitches as he continues his recovery from off-season elbow surgery.
USC pounded out 11 hits on the day, including a pair by freshman third baseman Christian Walker, who blasted the first home run of his career, a solo shot to center in the sixth. The Limerick, Pa., also handled all of his defensive chances cleanly.
"It was awesome. It was a great experience, almost overwhelming," Walker said. "I think I handled it pretty well."
Whit Merrifield, who hit Jones in the face with a shaving-cream pie after the news conference, also had two hits in the third inning, including a two-run single. Scott Wingo reached base in all four plate appearances - a single, a walk and two hit-by-pitches.
Tanner was glad to get the first win out of the way.
"There's a long way to go. I don't know if we'll hit a bunch of homers or not," he said. "We'll see how it goes."