ONE WEEK AFTER watching his team have to scrap for a series win in three one-run games against Liberty, USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook came away with a brighter outlook after a sweep against Albany.
Although the winless Great Danes didn’t present as much of a challenge — the Gamecocks outscored them 28-8 over three games — Holbrook found far more positives.
His three starting pitchers looked very good again, which means he doesn’t need to shuffle the rotation in advance of the upcoming Clemson series. His hitters swung the bats better after struggling in the opening series. And his defense made one error on the weekend — four fewer than the Liberty series — and that error seemed to inspire the guy who made it, senior third baseman Chase Vergason.
With a 5-1 record heading into the first midweek game — Tuesday’s 4 p.m. contest against Furman at Carolina Stadium — the Gamecocks are where they want to be. The first big test of the season comes this weekend with the annual three-game Clemson series at three different sites.
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Holbrook’s team also did something none of Ray Tanner’s teams or June Raines’ teams ever did. It pulled off a no-hitter, something that hadn’t been accomplished by USC pitchers since 1975.
The Gamecocks piled up 36 hits, 11 of them for extra bases and nine of them by hot-hitting first baseman LB Dantzler, and they played much looser than they did in the opening series. They ran the bases harder, and they looked less tentative in the field.
Most heartening to Holbrook may have been the hitting of freshman second baseman Max Schrock, who went 4-for-9, which included two doubles and a triple, in the final two games of the series. Schrock had gone 1-for-14 before then.
“He’s a good hitter. He just needs at-bats. He just needed to feel good about himself,” Holbrook said. “He was putting a little bit too much pressure on himself, and that might have been a little bit of my fault, too. I talked maybe too highly of him before the season started, and he didn’t want to disappoint me. He was trying awfully hard.”
Schrock’s errorless play at second base has been solid all season. His play there has pushed Vergason to third base. But Vergason had one hit to go with two errors in his first four games. And when he made an error in the second game against Albany that led to a 1-0 lead, it appeared that his transition was going nowhere fast.
But he rebounded by hitting a solo homer to tie the score. He went 4-for-6 with three RBIs and no errors after he threw that ball away.
Holbrook said he loved the way Vergason responded to the misplay.
“Chase got mad at himself. I was finally glad to see that, because I was madder at him than he was at himself,” Holbrook said. “I contemplated taking his rear end out of the game. But he got mad and not only swung the bat well, he got the big home run to get us on the board. After that bad play, he played well defensively the rest of the game.”
Sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake didn’t make an error on the weekend after letting two balls roll through his legs in the opening series, another heartening sign. But when Holbrook noticed him struggling to go first-to-third on a base hit in the first inning of the final game, he pulled Pankake out of the game. It turns out that he has a muscle strain in his hip, and its seriousness isn’t yet known.
“I would be shocked if he plays Tuesday, and I’m very hopeful he will be ready for the weekend,” Holbrook said.
Oh, yes. There’s the Clemson series, the one that makes the blood boil for fans across this state. The Gamecocks have won 9-of-13 meetings the past three seasons, with four of those wins coming in the NCAA tournament, ending the Tigers’ seasons in 2010 and 2012.
Clemson also is 5-1 after the opening two weekends, but Holbrook wasn’t ready to look ahead to the Tigers yet with Furman tonight. Plus, he still hoped to savor his first sweep as a head coach for a little while longer.