Matt Connolly

USC baseball is improved, and we’ll find out how much this week

Catcher/designater hitter John Jones has led the charge for USC this season, batting .593 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in eight games.
Catcher/designater hitter John Jones has led the charge for USC this season, batting .593 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in eight games. dmclemore@thestate.com

Eight games into the season, we’ve already learned a lot about South Carolina. By Sunday night, we’ll know a lot more.

The Gamecocks have been nothing short of dominant thus far, going 8-0 and winning by an average score of 9-2. But the competition level has been less than stellar, and all eight games were played at Founders Park.

USC plays its first road game of the season Tuesday night at The Citadel, a team that’s 5-1 with a series win over Virginia Tech. The Gamecocks then begin a three-game series with Clemson on Friday with Game 1 at Founders Park, Game 2 in Greenville and Game 3 at Clemson.

The Tigers lost their opener to Maine 4-3, but have rebounded to win their next five games. Clemson has outscored its opponents 55-10 over its five-game winning streak.

What we already know about South Carolina is that Chad Holbrook has upgraded the talent level. The No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the country has been dynamic so far.

USC has five players receiving regular playing time who are batting over .300, and four of the five players are newcomers.

John Jones has led the charge, batting an insane .593 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in eight games.

He just finished a weekend in which he was perfect, going 8-for-8 at the plate with two homers, 10 RBIs and six walks. He’s the first player to start all three games in a series since at least 1997 to have a 1.000 on-base percentage for a weekend. He could be the only player in USC history to have accomplished the feat, but stats only go back to 1997.

Jones isn’t the only player seeing the ball well right now. Holbrook has started 11 position players at least four times, and six of the 11 are batting better than .300. The lowest average on the team is DC Arendas, who is batting .250, but even Arendas is 4-for-5 in his last five at-bats after getting off to a slow start.

We also already know the core of Carolina’s lineup. Jones, whether at catcher or DH, will be in the lineup every day. He’ll be joined by left fielder Dom Thompson-Williams, third baseman Jonah Bride, shortstop Marcus Mooney and first baseman/DH Alex Destino. Infielder LT Tolbert’s versatility will get him in the lineup just about every day, and catcher Chris Cullen and second baseman DC Arendas will also get plenty of opportunities.

That leaves two spots in the outfield that are still up for grabs, and Danny Blair, Clark Scolamiero, Gene Cone and TJ Hopkins are battling for those.

Holbrook would like to settle on a consistent lineup by the start of the SEC season, and several players will have a chance to earn starting jobs this week, depending on how well they play at The Citadel and against Clemson.

As good as USC has been offensively, its performance on the mound might be even better. The Gamecocks, as a team, have an ERA of 1.50 – the best in the SEC.

The three weekend starters – Clarke Schmidt, Braden Webb and Taylor Widener – are a combined 4-0. Schmidt’s ERA is 0.69, Webb’s is 1.80 and Widener’s is 1.86.

The bullpen has also been solid. Five Gamecocks relievers have yet to allow a run. In the only competitive game USC played, a 4-2 win over Penn State on Sunday, Reed Scott and and Josh Reagan combined to pitch 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. The only hit allowed came on an infield single.

After several blowouts to open the year, Holbrook said it was good to see his team be tested.

“You’ve got to win when you don’t play your best ball to have a special season,” he said. “We need to be in some tight games. You’re going to have a lot of close games over the course of a 56-game season, and you like to see how your guys are going to react.”

This week will likely bring more close games. It appears that Carolina is much-improved from last season. We will learn a lot about how much better USC is when it travels to The Citadel on Tuesday, and especially this weekend when it faces Clemson.

By the numbers

A look at USC’s 8-0 baseball team:

14

Times catcher John Jones reached base vs. Penn State out of 14 appearances, batting 1.000 (8-for-8) with six walks.

.593

Jones’ batting average for the season (16-for-27) with a double, three homers, 11 runs scored and 19 RBI.

1.50

The USC pitching staff’s ERA, best in the SEC. The Gamecocks have allowed 16 runs, 12 earned.

11

Strikeouts in the debut of freshman right-hander Adam Hill, who allowed just two hits and no walks.

7

RBIs in a game by sophomore first baseman Alex Destino, who homered twice including a grand slam.

.337

USC’s team batting average (92-for-273) with a .443 on-base percentage and a .458 slugging mark.

  Comments