There’s no reason for South Carolina to panic after dropping a series at Kentucky over the weekend, but it might be time to tinker with a lineup that has struggled to score runs at times over the past couple of weeks.
South Carolina has scored four runs or fewer in five of its past six games. The Gamecocks had every opportunity to win Sunday’s series finale in Lexington, but stranded 15 base runners in a 5-4 loss to the Wildcats in 12 innings.
USC outhit Kentucky 14-5, but still lost the game as the Gamecocks went 5-for-30 with runners on base and 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position.
“I haven’t seen many games when you outhit the opponent 14-5 and find a way to lose the game,” coach Chad Holbrook told reporters afterward. “It’s difficult to take in that regard. We’ve gotta have guys step up with people on base. We had the game in our hands, and we couldn’t have a couple of quality at-bats with runners in scoring position.”
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While there’s plenty of blame to go around for Sunday’s loss, South Carolina might have been able to scratch across a few extra runs with different hitters in important situations.
With runners on first and second and one out in the first inning, cleanup hitter John Jones struck out looking. Later in the game, Jones hit into a fielder’s choice with runners on the corners and one out, and added a walk and a popup on the infield before leaving the game in the seventh inning.
On Sunday, Jones hit fourth behind USC’s leading power threat, Alex Destino, and he has hit in the middle of the order for most of the season. But with Jones struggling for the past several weeks, he isn’t able to protect Destino in the lineup.
Since an impressive performance against Arkansas in the first weekend of SEC play, Jones is hitting .191 with no homers and six RBIs in 18 SEC starts.
He can still help the Gamecocks win games and has time to break out of his slump, but until he’s able to put together more consistent at-bats, it’s hard to make a case for having him in the middle of the lineup – if in the lineup at all.
If Jones does not start, TJ Hopkins would be the obvious candidate to replace him. With the freshman in the outfield, the Gamecocks would be better defensively, and he also has 19 RBIs despite only 21 starts.
Hopkins still strikes out too much, but he has some power, will take walks and is a force on the base paths.
DC Arendas has seen his playing time decrease as of late, but he started Sunday’s series finale at second base with fellow second baseman Madison Stokes serving as the designated hitter.
Arendas went 1-for-5 with a run scored, but struck out three times. He’s hitting .180 in SEC games and has struck out in 46 percent of his at-bats in conference play.
The problem with starting Arendas at second and Stokes at DH is when Arendas came up in important situations late in the game, Holbrook was unable to pinch hit for him because he had no one left to play second.
Arendas is perhaps the best defensive second baseman in the SEC, but with 28 strikeouts in 61 at-bats in league play, his contributions should come as a late defensive substitution.
Dom Thompson-Williams has hit second for the past few games, and while he has performed well, he has not had a ton of RBI opportunities. Thompson-Williams got three hits Sunday, but he would be better served hitting fourth or fifth in the lineup with more chances to drive in runs.
He could also help protect Destino in the lineup, and said earlier in the year he’d prefer to hit in the middle of the lineup instead of at the top.
Marcus Mooney would be a candidate to replace Thompson-Williams in the two-hole. The senior has struck out only 12 times in 144 at-bats this year, and he handles the bat well. Mooney can lay down a sac bunt, and is also a candidate to hit and run because he will almost always put the ball in play.
South Carolina’s lineup is already good, but a few changes could make it even better as the Gamecocks attempt to win an SEC title over the next couple of weeks.
Connolly’s Proposed Starting Lineup
RF: Gene Cone
2B: Marcus Mooney
3B: Jonah Bride
LF: Dom Thompson-Williams
2B: Madison Stokes
C: Chris Cullen
1B: LT Tolbert
CF: TJ Hopkins