David Cloninger

Gamecocks still clinging to belief in themselves

The crowd was much less than half-full, but that was expected for a midweek game against an in-state opponent not named Clemson. The cheers (and jeers) were sparse, energy perhaps sapped by a temperature that hit low 90s at first pitch or the realization that as good as it felt to watch South Carolina win any baseball game, the comfort usually enjoyed this time of year was as far away as a Christian Walker home run.

There’s still hope around Founders Park, that the Gamecocks can climb out of this skid and get back to their birthright of the NCAA tournament, and it is still possible for the Gamecocks to do so. Yet chances are slim, the team and fans know it, and after another fingernail-chewing win, this one over a 22-30 team, hope is down to a feeble heartbeat.

That beat is still there, though, and the only ones who can shock it back to rhythm – the Gamecocks – feel they hold the paddles.

“It’s no secret – these games are huge for implications going down the road,” said Alex Destino, who socked a two-run homer. “Every game’s kind of a do-or-die game. I know people don’t want to say that, but it is when it comes down to it.”

Yes, it is. Al Davis said it best.

“Just win, baby.”

No spirit stick or fish or haircuts. Just win. Find some way to sweep Georgia this weekend and avoid just the program’s third losing SEC season since 1997. Promise a gift to God or the Devil or Buddha or Vishnu to win a game or two or three in Hoover, where Chad Holbrook has yet to win one and where USC hasn’t won since 2012.

Just win. Win the only games you need to win and get to a regional and show that it might have been a forgettable 55 games but just like the school’s men’s basketball team, USC is one of the teams still alive and it’s really, really hard to kill a battling rooster.

Just win.

“I feel good about our guys’ psyche all year long, honestly,” Holbrook said. “They’re not a defeated group by any stretch, and they know they have a lot to play for this weekend, and the weekend after that.”

Holbrook has had an immensely rough season, having to make a staff change and uttering some ill-advised and ill-timed comments about fan support, lumped onto a team that can’t get runners across the plate and can’t hold many late-inning leads. Throw in the injuries – he lost two starters just Tuesday! – and it’s added to the snow boulder rolling downhill.

But the year is not over. All the criticism and questioning goes away if he can coach this team from backs nearly a part of the wall into the Field of 64, then the Round of 16. He knows as well as all of us that it is inexcusable for this program to miss the NCAA tournament in any year, much less twice in three seasons, but he also knows a hot streak could be just around the corner. Holbrook has enough on his plate with pitcher-batter matchups, when to bunt or not and his relief pitching, but his hardest task has been to keep telling his troops they aren’t finished.

The coach says belief is held by the only group that needs to hold it – his team. And he knows what’s at stake as well.

“There’s no excuse this year,” Holbrook said. “This is South Carolina and we expect to win.”

Expectations could become reality this weekend and beyond.

If reality doesn’t set in again.

Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC