David Cloninger

Calling for the bunt as important as executing it

South Carolina’s Clark Scolamiero is tagged out at home by Duke’s Chris Proctor on a bunt that didn’t go as planned during the Gamecocks’ win Saturday.
South Carolina’s Clark Scolamiero is tagged out at home by Duke’s Chris Proctor on a bunt that didn’t go as planned during the Gamecocks’ win Saturday. gmelendez@thestate.com

To bunt or not to bunt? That is the question when your team has taken bats to the plate like they’re swathed in poison ivy.

Through April and May, South Carolina had chronic allergies to runners in scoring position. No matter what coach Chad Holbrook and company tried, they couldn’t get a big hit to get some of those runners home. No problem getting ’em on, massive problems getting ’em in.

Bunting worked, helping the Gamecocks find ways to scratch the go-ahead run across and hold on to win. Then the bats started to boom at Alabama, which was terrific, until the next game rolled around.

What to do now in a big situation? Bunt and give up an out? Or let your best hitters, which only recently returned to being your best hitters, swing away?

“It’s a gut feeling,” Holbrook said. “It’s a great play when it works and it’s my fault when it doesn’t. That’s just part of it.”

The Gamecocks went 2-for-4 on Saturday on such calls, and stayed alive with a 4-2 elimination-game win over Duke.

TJ Hopkins bunted Gene Cone to second in the first inning, and Cone scored on Jonah Bride’s single. Madison Stokes bunted Dom Thompson-Williams to second in the ninth in a tie game, and Hunter Taylor delivered a shot off the third-base bag that bounced into left and scored the go-ahead run.

The third attempt had the right idea, but didn’t work out. With speedy Clark Scolamiero running for Taylor, Holbrook told Marcus Mooney to bunt. Mooney did it, perfectly, and Scolamiero came tearing around the third-base bag, depending on Duke’s third baseman to glove the ball and throw to first.

The only problem was Jack Labosky didn’t pick up the ball, so it was sitting a foot from him as Scolamiero was already past third. That became an easy out at the plate, although USC scored the insurance run anyway on a wild pitch.

“It was close to working for perfection,” Holbrook said. “Usually the timing’s a little bit better, and you can round the base and see the ball coming out of his arm. If he’d have thrown it, we’d have scored.”

The right call made wrong by something nobody could control. Even Holbrook’s critics had to look at the scenario and see, “That’s baseball.”

Then there was the other one, the one that threatened to make this a really awful weekend. Leading 2-1 in the fifth, already in their bullpen, the Gamecocks had a chance for a big inning and threw it away.

Cone and Hopkins each singled to bring up Alex Destino, who’d launched a moonshot on Friday but spent his first two at-bats Saturday trying to kill mosquitoes with his bat.

Despite Destino having 21 extra-base hits and zero sacrifice bunts this year, Holbrook told him to bunt. “Destino’s actually one of our better bunters,” the coach said. “He’s one of our better bunters in practice.”

He popped up the first pitch. Bride followed with a double-play grounder. USC’s next nine batters sat down in order.

“No doubt in my mind the bunt was the right play there, and he popped it up,” Holbrook said. “Stokes didn’t get one down last night, but he got down a big one today and got Dom in scoring position there.”

He did, and the Gamecocks won. USC was able to make the game work for it, and keep itself in position to win the regional.

If bunting or not comes up Sunday, Holbrook will have a few more gut decisions to make. He went .500 on Saturday.

While that’s plenty good for the Hall of Fame, he’d prefer to increase it.

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