David Cloninger

Knock on Gamecocks all season was hitting approach

That they couldn’t do it all year and somehow found a way to in a place where they’ve hardly ever played well was yet another salty dose to an open wound of a season.

South Carolina finally figured out how to hit with runners in scoring position at the SEC tournament (at least before the final game), and it still wasn’t enough.

The Gamecocks gave themselves hope, but too many other teams playing for the same prize reached further. Eight straight series losses, a 13-17 SEC record and nothing close to a preseason No. 5 ranking left USC out of the postseason for the second time in three seasons.

What happened to a team that was supposed to be the most talented of Chad Holbrook’s tenure? Injuries hurt. Decisions hurt. The bullpen wasn’t trusted beyond three main arms and the overuse on them hurt.

The only consistency this team had was not being able to score. That hurt the most.

USC had no problem getting ’em on. The Gamecocks were chronically incapable of getting ’em over or getting ’em in. Holbrook insisted his team was the greatest collection of bunters in the Northern Hemisphere in practice, but during games it was the 10th-best squad in Dixie Youth. Throw in a dreadful impatience of working a count/pitcher and popping up or grounding into a double play with runners in scoring position and you have USC Baseball 2017.

I can’t put my finger on an exact reason. Not having a stable lineup certainly contributed. A philosophy that predates Holbrook – “the best pitch you’re going to see from a college pitcher is the first, so be aggressive” – also figured in, as the Gamecocks never seemed to realize that with a man on third with less than two outs, or the previous batter walked, or there was a new pitcher on the mound, it may be wise to take a pitch or two.

First pitches were sometimes beneficial. Chris Cullen smoked one at Florida for a 5-3 lead late in the game.

The eight first-pitch outs from the fifth through the eighth, four with men on base, haunted when J.J. Schwarz belted a game-winning grand slam later on. One has to wonder if the Gamecocks would take a pitch if they went to the plate without a bat, because they surely couldn’t do much worse than they did swinging.

Then there was the case of former volunteer coach Brian Buscher, who coached the Gamecocks’ hitters. From what I understand, the blowup that led to Holbrook dismissing him on March 28 was perfectly justified.

Yet like many decisions this year, it came back to bite Holbrook. With Buscher, the Gamecocks were 17-6, 5-1 SEC. They were batting a respectable .272.

They finished at .260 and 18-19, 8-16 SEC.

“I’m going to evaluate every single aspect of the program,” Holbrook said Tuesday, when asked if Buscher’s replacement, Stuart Lake, would remain in that position. “I’ll make the decisions I need to make at the appropriate time, and coach (Ray) Tanner will do the same.”

The wait is on to see what Tanner will do about this (if anything) and what Holbrook will do about this (if he has a chance to). Whoever guides USC’s hitters next season, he needs to have a 180-degree shift from current thinking.

Adam Matthews once took ball four to walk in a run. In a game that sent the winner to the College World Series championship series, Matthews held off in the biggest at-bat of his career.

Perhaps whoever’s in charge next season needs to show that at-bat to every hitter before every practice and game. Sometimes, the most productive pitch is the one that’s not swung on. Matthews knew that just five years ago.

That approach, and that result, seems so much further away.

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