ALL THE OUTWARD signs are positive for the South Carolina baseball team.
After winning five consecutive games last week to rebound from a series loss to Clemson, the Gamecocks are sitting on a 12-3 record while jumping five spots to No. 7 in the Baseball America Top 25 poll released Monday.
But as SEC play begins this weekend with a home series against Kentucky, USC coach Chad Holbrook has a few things that he doesn’t know about his team. The hitting is inconsistent with a .268 batting average, and the everyday lineup remains unsettled. Two positions – first base and center field – can be called stable as Holbrook has tried nine starting lineups and 13 batting orders.
That lack of a settled lineup as the difficult part of the schedule arrives – five SEC opponents are Top 25 teams, including three in the Top 5 – has a concerned Holbrook trying to find the best combination. The five-game winning streak came against three teams with a combined record of 13-22, and he was not overly happy with his team’s play in the sweep of Miami (Ohio).
“I know that they’re much better than how they performed,” he said. “We’ve got to perform at a higher level.”
The pitching staff is doing its part. It has compiled a 2.35 ERA with 129 strikeouts in 134 innings and held opponents to a .228 batting average. Wil Crowe (2-1, 3.47 ERA) and Jack Wynkoop (3-1, 2.00) are frontline SEC arms anchoring the weekend rotation.
Right-hander Taylor Widener has emerged as a bona fide closer with five saves, a 1.17 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings. Left-hander Vince Fiori (2-0, 0.69) is a stalwart in middle relief.
But the team continues to search for a Game 3 weekend starter. Josh Reagan and freshman Clarke Schmidt have gotten opportunities. Schmidt (2-0, 2.35) looks to stay there at least for the short term.
Holbrook also likes the defensive ability of this team, especially in the infield, despite a few games when there were struggles, such as the four-error day in the rubber-game loss to Clemson. The coach attributes that in part to the positional shuffling among the infielders.
With Kyle Martin anchored at first baseman, Holbrook believes his best defensive combination is DC Arendas at third base, Jordan Gore at shortstop, and Marcus Mooney at second base. That leaves the team’s standout starter at second the past two seasons, Max Schrock, who’s struggling with a .191 average and four errors, looking for a regular spot. He might end up going back and forth between left field and second base until he regains his confidence.
“I feel bad for Max because he works his tail off, and he’s a really gifted player,” Holbrook said. “I hate it when I see kids work as hard as they work and they don’t get the results on the field. We’ve got a long season in front of us, and I think he’ll produce for us.“
The Gamecocks also are dealing with nagging injuries to Arendas (thumb), Mooney (hamstring) and freshman designated hitter Alex Destino (thumb). But Holbrook doesn’t expect them to be sidelined when conference play starts.
USC plays host to Penn State (1-8) on Tuesday and Wednesday, which offers two more chances to improve the record before the sledding gets tougher. That’s when everyone will find out if the Gamecocks belong among the Top 10 teams in the nation.