Neil White

April 21, 2014

Gamecocks baseball goals are still within reach

With 16 regular-season games and the SEC tournament remaining – the Gamecocks are in good shape for a strong seed in the NCAA tournament if they can avoid more slumps.

Neil White

In the know about Gamecocks baseball

Heading into the ninth inning of Saturday’s second game of the Auburn series, South Carolina was three outs from its sixth consecutive loss, something that had not occurred since the end of the 1996 season.

But the Gamecocks stared down defeat and scored two runs to record a 3-2 victory after an RBI double by Gene Cone, an RBI single by Jordan Gore, and a three-up, three-down save by Joel Seddon. That win propelled USC to a 4-3 win Sunday and aSEC road series victory.

Injuries and inconsistent play had plagued the Gamecocks the previous two weeks, when they had lost seven of nine games, including five-of-six in the conference, to fall from No. 1 in the nation.

But the two wins against Auburn coincided with some of their injured regulars – third baseman Joey Pankake, right-fielder Connor Bright, and shortstop Marcus Mooney – working their way back into the lineup.

Those one-run victories supplied a boost to a team that badly needed one. After last Wednesday’s road loss to The Citadel, Holbrook noted that his players could use a feel-good win to get back on track. It wasn’t easy, but they got a pair of them.

“It’s certainly a big relief and an accomplishment for our team to get two wins,” Holbrook said Monday afternoon. “And, the way that we did it showed some resiliency and some toughness. We got through some of the adversity we faced. Even if you’re healthy and clicking on all cylinders and you go on the road and win a weekend series in the SEC, you feel good about yourself.”

The Gamecocks, despite a 2-3 record last week, held steady at No. 11 in the Baseball America Top 25 and slipped to No. 6 in the unofficial RPI rankings. That means – with 16 regular-season games and the SEC tournament remaining – they’re in good shape for a strong seed in the NCAA tournament if they can avoid more slumps.

“We’ve caught our breath, and 40 games into the season, we’re 30-10 and everything we want to accomplish is still in front of us. We haven’t played our way out of anything,” Holbrook said. “On another note, we’ve played our way into a great opportunity for a lot of accomplishments. The kids are fine. We’ve weathered the storm. Now let’s play our best baseball.”

The Gamecocks, who play five home games this week, need to avoid more serious injuries. Holbrook believes Pankake (elbow), Bright (elbow) and Mooney (concussion) are on the way back to full strength. But second baseman Max Schrock, who had just recovered from an ankle sprain as well as a virus over the previous weeks, didn’t play over the weekend because of a back injury that’s related to the stress fracture he suffered last summer. He might not return for an indefinite period.

“I don’t feel any better or worse about where he is. Those back issues tend to linger,” Holbrook said. “I’m not optimistic about him playing in the near future. It can be bothersome, off and on, for a long period of time.”

Other injuries have cropped up as well, with left-fielder Elliott Caldwell going out over the weekend with a back issue. Reliever Vince Fiori might miss a few more weeks with a strained lat muscle. And reliever Evan Beal broke his nose playing catch.

But Holbrook feels confident that his team can play well down the stretch, as it did to open the season, especially if it’s healthy. Even with Schrock out, infielders DC Arendas and Gore have shown they can compete at a high level.

“Hopefully, if we can get healthy and get some guys back, we can play our best baseball when it matters most,” Holbrook said. “This team is capable of doing special things, but we’ve got to get our guys back out there to be one of those teams.”

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