David Cloninger

Jones doesn’t think, just swings, and helps Gamecocks advance

John Jones didn’t think he’d play.

Not thinking helped South Carolina win.

With UNC Wilmington rallying from an 8-1 deficit, Jones was doing what he could. That was being the bullpen catcher, since he knew he most likely wasn’t going to play.

“As far as getting benched, that’s just the way it goes,” Jones shrugged. “If you’re not hitting, somebody right behind you is ready to hit, and they come in and hit, nothing you can do about that.”

There wasn’t, and he wasn’t hitting. The National Hitter of the Week after the Gamecocks swept Arkansas from March 18-20, Jones didn’t just struggle from that point, he was a completely different player.

The hefty .422 batting average, with six homers and 31 RBIs, he toted into a series against Ole Miss looked like an aberration as the season progressed. It began like most thought it would – Jones was blasting horsehide as the latest find from USC’s Florida JUCO pipeline.

The Ole Miss series wasn’t terrible, but he missed a few pitches, then he scattered a couple of hits against Vanderbilt, then got worse. Those slashes and crooked numbers that always appeared under “H” and “RBI” in the boxscores were now goose eggs, and were laid game after game after game.

The word was out – Big Bad John wasn’t nearly.

Jones tried to break out.

“Definitely taken more swings, which I think was kind of a negative downside – I kind of beat myself up,” he said. “I think that’s really where it kind of snowballed for me.”

He hit .160 from March 24-May 19, with one homer and 10 RBIs. Chad Holbrook vowed to stay loyal to Jones, no matter how many strikeouts or men he left on base. But when a brief surge at Alabama (three hits, six RBIs) turned into 0-for-6 in Hoover, something had to change.

“Because I know when he’s John Jones, and he’s got a fresh, clear mind, I know he’s one of our best hitters,” Holbrook said. “But he hasn’t had a clear mind the last couple of weeks. As much as I wanted him to get it going, it was time to put T.J. (Hopkins) in there and let him go.”

So Jones was relegated to the pine, pinch-hitting in two games in the regional. Yet when UNCW was rallying and went to a new pitcher in USC’s last chance to bat, Holbrook needed a lefty.

“Jones!,” he hollered.

Slight problem. Jones was in the bullpen.

“He didn’t have time to think,” Holbrook said. “He just had a full-fledged sprint into the dugout, got a bat, got a helmet, went up there and swung.”

And finally connected.

His rocket to right-center missed clearing the wall by an inch, but scored two runs, ones the Gamecocks were glad to have after the Seahawks climbed to within three and had last raps. The ovation Jones received as he was replaced by a pinch-runner more than made up for the past two months.

“Coach believed in me to go in there in a pretty big spot, kind of give us a little more edge going into the ninth,” he said. “It’s a team sport and I’m glad to see it, and we’re winning games. That’s what matters to me.”

It reminded me of Nick Ebert, another Florida JUCO product who smoked 23 homers and drove in 72 in 2009. He returned to USC in 2010 and couldn’t hit a beach ball, with just seven homers and 31 RBIs.

Yet he was called on to pinch-hit in Game 2 of the Super Regionals and singled, and the run scored as USC tied Coastal Carolina at 7 in the sixth, then went on to win. Ebert, even though he didn’t have near the season he wanted, walked away with a national championship ring.

Jones wouldn’t mind the same ending, and helped give the Gamecocks that chance.

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