The South Carolina baseball team started its 2013 season with a historical first under new coach Chad Holbrook. Never before has USC opened a season with three consecutive one-run games.
With victories of 4-3 and 8-7 against Liberty followed by a 3-2 loss, the Gamecocks, who stayed No. 7 in this week’s Baseball America Top 25, won the hard-fought series at Carolina Stadium. But it was so close that either team could have swept the other, which left Holbrook feeling fortunate that his team has a winning record.
Liberty couldn’t get the big hit in the first game, stranding 14 runners, and the Flames blew a 7-0 lead in the final two innings of Game 2. The Gamecocks pulled out the series win thanks to effective performances from their three starting pitchers — Jordan Montgomery, Colby Holmes and Nolan Belcher — as well as closer Tyler Webb in two appearances.
The hitting, however, wasn’t as consistent. USC managed 17 hits in three games, 14 singles, for a .210 average. Four players tallied three hits each — LB Dantzler, Joey Pankake, Tanner English and Graham Saiko — but the rest of the team combined for five.
“I’m a little bit more worried about having a few more competitive at-bats in there collectively. That was the thing that disappointed me the most,” Holbrook said.
He also was not thrilled by the two errors each made by Pankake at shortstop and Chase Vergason at third base. Pankake let two balls roll through his legs, with the second error opening up Liberty’s six-run seventh inning in Game 2.
“Our defensive play on the left side of the infield was unacceptable this weekend,” Holbrook said. “Joey’s much better than what he played, and so is Chase. I expect older guys and more mature guys to handle themselves in a mature fashion and defensively over the course of the weekend. They did not.”
But he remains confident in their ability, although he moved Dantzler from first base back to third for the final game and sat down Vergason. That move also had something to do with getting Kyle Martin, who went in at first base, some at-bats.
The promised running game never got going either. The speedy English was the only player to attempt a steal, but he was successful on one of three attempts, something Holbrook blamed on busted hit-and-run plays by his hitters. But Holbrook still plans to send English and others more frequently.
“You don’t learn how to steal bases by sitting over there. Now’s the time to learn,” Holbrook said.
English, however, did get his first three hits from the left side as he adapted to switch-hitting for the first time in his collegiate career while batting in three spots in the order on the weekend — first, eighth and ninth.
Holbrook saw other positives, too. He said he loved how his team rallied from a seven-run deficit. That comeback — the largest since the Gamecocks rallied from an eight-run deficit in a 2009 win against Tennessee — showed both character and fight.
He said his team must continue to display that resolve as the season progresses. Albany comes to town for a three-game series this weekend, and Holbrook said he hopes to see his players looser than they were against Liberty.
“It’s a fun game to play. And our guys had fun winning the first two games, but I want them to have more fun when they’re playing, have a little bit more energy, a little bit more enthusiasm and be a little bit more carefree, so to speak,” Holbrook said. “I think they tried so hard to do so well, and sometimes in baseball, the harder you try, it can work against you.”