Matt Connolly

If USC is going to rely on small ball, it needs to get much better at it

South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook seems intent on playing small ball to win games.

“Trying to get that runner to third base with less than two outs is going to be a priority of mine going forward,” Holbrook told 107.5 FM in Columbia on Monday.

Teams have won championships playing small ball and teams have won championships playing for the three-run homer. Both can work and have worked at South Carolina and at other places.

In recent years, Holbrook has been set on making small ball a big part of the Gamecocks’ offense. The problem right now is his team isn’t very good at it.

The most obvious case of South Carolina failing to execute came Sunday afternoon in the series finale against Clemson when Holbrook pulled his leading RBI producer Alex Destino from the game in place of junior college transfer Justin Row.

Holbrook’s reasoning was he wanted to avoid a double play, Row is the team’s best bunter and he wanted to get a runner to third with less than two outs.

Instead, Row popped the bunt up and Carolina was unable to score in the inning.

Row might indeed be USC’s best bunter, but there is a difference between bunting in practice and bunting in front of more than 8,000 fans with the rivalry series on the line.

Row had never played in the Carolina-Clemson rivalry before this weekend, and went to the plate with one sacrifice bunt in a South Carolina uniform.

Destino is a junior who spoke before the weekend about how much it would mean to win a series against Clemson for the first time. He has 10 RBIs, three more than anyone else on the team, and is tied for the team lead in hits and doubles, including one earlier in the game.

Before deciding to bunt Row for Destino, Holbrook tried to have Jacob Olson bunt to push Matt Williams to second. Olson was unsuccessful and fell behind 0-2 before being hit by a pitch.

Even if Olson would have gotten the bunt down, Clemson would have almost assuredly walked Destino, leaving runners at first and second with one out for Jonah Bride. So, USC would have taken the bat out of the hands of its top two home run hitters and RBI producers.

Instead, Clemson hit Olson and gifted South Carolina a scenario where it would have two on and Destino up with no outs instead of two on and Bride up with one out.

But as has been the problem too often for the Gamecocks this year, the bunt was not executed.

On Friday night against Clemson, Bride executed a sacrifice bunt in the sixth inning and USC scored two runs later in the frame, albeit on an error with two outs.

In the eighth, Bride again executed a sacrifice bunt, but the Gamecocks did not score.

On Saturday, Carolina had two on and no outs in the fourth inning for Hunter Taylor, who tried to sacrifice bunt the runners over, but could not get the bunt down.

In the sixth on Saturday, USC led 5-2 and had a runner on second with no outs, but TJ Hopkins could not get a bunt down on his first attempt and ended up striking out.

In the decisive game on Sunday, Stokes showed bunt early on in an at bat in the eighth inning with a runner on first before getting ahead in the count and then bouncing into a double play on a full count.

Then, in the ninth inning, Row came up empty after pinch hitting for Destino. USC did execute a sacrifice bunt in the 10th inning when Blair moved Christian Flint to second. But Clemson walked Hopkins to set up the double play, which it got.

The bunt can be a valuable play in baseball. South Carolina has been fairly successful when it comes to getting runners home from third with less than two outs this year. But if the Gamecocks plan to rely on bunts all season, they need to get better at it.