South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook sat at the podium at the conclusion of the series sweep of Eastern Kentucky and knew he couldn’t reasonably complain about any facet of his team’s play.
The Gamecocks had won their seventh straight game to start the season and posted their school-record fifth consecutive shutout. They’ve outscored opponents 57-6 while outhitting them .319 to .179. The pitching staff has compiled an ERA of 0.86, as two of 13 pitchers have allowed runs.
“We’ve played seven games and we’ve won them all, so you feel good about that,” Holbrook said. “As coaches, we kind of harp on some of the things we need to improve upon, and sometimes we don’t smell the roses when things are going good because we just want to play better. But we have played well and feel good about where our team is.”
The players are as encouraged by the fast start, which includes hot hitting from first baseman Kyle Martin, right-fielder Connor Bright and catcher Grayson Greiner. The starting rotation of Jordan Montgomery, Jack Wynkoop and Wil Crowe is dominant, as is new closer Joel Seddon.
“The team’s playing great. The pitching staff is unbelievable. We look to take it into next weekend,” said Bright, who hitting .444 with a team-high 11 RBIs.
Clemson, this weekend’s opponent, is likely to offer a stiffer test than Bucknell, Presbyterian and Eastern Kentucky. After dropping the season opener to Eastern Michigan, the Tigers have won five straight games, including a weekend sweep of Maine.
While Clemson’s early-season statistics aren’t quite as eye-popping as those of USC, Holbrook knows anything can happen in a rivalry as hotly contested as this one. The teams play a three-game weekend series for the fifth straight season. They’ll meet at Columbia’s Carolina Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m., Greenville’s Flour Field on Saturday at 2 p.m., and Clemson’s Doug Kingsmore Stadium on Sunday at 4 p.m.
“What we’ve done up to this point won’t mean a hill of beans,” Holbrook said. “It’s Clemson and South Carolina, and whether we’re 7-0 or 0-7, it’s a rivalry our kids get excited to be a part of. One of the reasons that kids want to come play at South Carolina is because of the atmospheres in the ballparks this weekend.”
Clemson counters with its standouts in shortstop Tyler Krieger, catcher Garrett Boulware and pitchers Daniel Gossett and Matthew Crownover.
“They’ve got good kids over there. Our kids know their kids. It’s what makes it fun,” Holbrook said. “They played against each other in high school. They talk to each other all the time.”
Once the games start, however, the intensity heats up, both on the field and in the stands. The programs are two of college baseball’s best, and this series helps prepare both teams for the difficulty of conference play. Clemson holds the overall lead by a margin of 170-131-2 in a series that dates back to 1899, but the Gamecocks have claimed the recent upper hand, winning 20 of the past 28 games dating to the start of the 2007 season.
USC defeated the Tigers twice in the 2010 College World Series on the way to its first national championship while also winning a pair to eliminate them from the 2012 NCAA regional in Columbia.
“From a baseball perspective, you put (the rivalry) on a par with any other rivalry, Duke-North Carolina (basketball) or Ohio State-Michigan football. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of as a coach and as a player. I know Clemson feels the same way,” Holbrook said.
While it’s hard to argue with what the Gamecocks have accomplished so far in their second season under Holbrook, everyone should get a much better handle on how good this team is by the end of these three games against the Tigers. USC pitchers have allowed only 40 hits and struck out 70 in 63 innings, and the much-improved defense, lifted by new shortstop Marcus Mooney, has committed only four errors.
“Our recipe is going to be the same-old, same-old, day-in and day-out, no matter who the opponent is. We can’t change who we are just because we’re playing a new opponent,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to try to do what we do – pitch and play defense. We’re going to need to do that to have a chance to be successful this weekend.”
A LOT OF GOOSE EGGS
USC set a school record Sunday, recording its fifth consecutive shutout. The previous record was set in 1972. The Gamecocks have not allowed a run in 51.0 straight innings. The only runs allowed this season came in the last two innings of a 17-4 win over Bucknell in the first game and a pair of runs by Bucknell in the third inning of the second game. A look at the streak:
USC 12, Bucknell 2
USC 12, Bucknell 0
USC 4, Prebyterian 0
USC 4, Eastern Kentucky 0
USC 2, Eastern Kentucky 0
USC 6, Eastern Kentucky 0