Matt Connolly

Jones, newcomers power USC’s offense in first series

South Carolina's Alex Destino and Dom Thompson-Williams score against Albany
South Carolina's Alex Destino and Dom Thompson-Williams score against Albany

It was only one weekend, and the competition was far from great, but you have to be encouraged by what you saw from South Carolina’s newcomers if you’re a fan of the Gamecocks.

Coach Chad Holbrook made it his mission to improve the talent level at USC, and while it’s still early, he appears to have done so.

USC hit .323 against Albany and scored 24 runs, an average of eight per game. South Carolina newcomers drove in 18 of the 24 runs, led by catcher/DH John Jones, who hit .600 with a homer, a double and nine RBIs in the three-game series.

Holbrook gave 17 players at-bats over the weekend, including 10 playing their first season for USC.

The newcomers finished with 24 hits and batted .387, while the veterans finished with seven hits and batted .206.

Those numbers represent a small sample size, but they are interesting.

Holbrook didn’t bring in all freshmen. Jones, Dom Thompson-Williams and Jonah Bride spent time at junior college.

The three have provided leadership and earned the respect of their teammates. They drove in 14 of Carolina’s 24 runs against Albany.

While the newcomers have been stellar, veterans will also play a key role.

Shortstop Marcus Mooney was solid for USC against Albany, other than one error. He hit .333 and had a .636 on-base percentage, good for second on the team. He got a chance batting leadoff and hitting in the bottom of the order, and looked comfortable doing both.

Second baseman DC Arendas was exceptional defensively the first two games, but came off the bench for Game 3 after going 0-for-5with three strikeouts. In order to remain in the lineup, he will likely have to start hitting.

Sophomore Clark Scolamiero also got a chance in the leadoff spot and had an up-and-down weekend, hitting .333. The big focus for him this season is getting the ball in play and cutting down on strikeouts.

Then there’s Alex Destino, who was expected to lead the Gamecocks at the plate this season.

The sophomore was just about an impossible out in preseason scrimmages, but managed two hits in 14 at-bats against Albany. Destino hit several balls hard, but always right at someone. Still, it almost makes USC’s offensive numbers more impressive when you consider how much Destino struggled.

Destino is too good a hitter to struggle for long, and breaks will even out eventually.

“I’m not worried about him. He’s one of the best hitters on our team, if not the best,” Holbrook said. “He hit some balls on the nose. He’s pressing a little bit because he wants to get off to a good start, but sometimes baseball can be cruel to you when you press.”

On the mound, the Gamecocks allowed only three earned runs. Starters Clarke Schmidt, Braden Webb and Taylor Widener pitched well, but Schmidt and Webb combined to walk seven. They’ll need to improve their command.

Holbrook hasn’t decided on a closer, but 10 relievers saw action and none allowed a run.

Josh Reagan was probably the most impressive, earning a save and striking out four in 1 2/3 innings of work without allowing a base runner.

While it was a solid start to the year, we’ll learn a lot more about South Carolina over the next several weeks.

USC got off to a strong start in 2015 before missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. But Carolina has new players and a new attitude, and Holbrook believes there will be a new result.

“It’s just three games. We were 17-3 last year, so let’s not put that cart before the horse, but I feel good about our team,” he said. “There’s a different vibe. They have some maturity. We have some guys that want to win in the worst way. We have some moxie. I’m anxious to see how that translates when the competition gets stiff.”