Neil White

USC baseball’s slide: What is going wrong?

nwhite@thestate.com

South Carolina has lost four-straight SEC series and hosts No. 5 Vanderbilt this weekend.
South Carolina has lost four-straight SEC series and hosts No. 5 Vanderbilt this weekend. tdominick@thestate.com

GETTING SWEPT IN an SEC baseball series is never good.

Losing by a combined score of 38-10 is worse.

Dropping a fourth consecutive conference series is worst of all for a team looking to make the NCAA tournament.

South Carolina (23-14), which has reached the championship tourney and at least 40 wins for 15 straight seasons, now has plenty of work to do after getting demolished on the road against No. 8 Florida.

The Gamecocks didn’t play well in any phase of the game as they continued their month-long struggle. Since sweeping Kentucky in mid-March to start the SEC schedule and jump to No. 6 in the Baseball America Top 25, they’ve lost nine of 12 conference games while going 3-2 in midweek contests to fall out of the rankings and into a four-way tie for eighth place in the SEC standings.

USC coach Chad Holbrook knows his team must find a way to make something good happen quickly not only to stop the slide but for the players to recover their confidence.

“You can’t feel sorry for yourselves in this league. It’s not for the meek. You’ve got to look ahead, prepare and go out there and create some momentum,” Holbrook said. “Right now, we’re not feeling too good about ourselves. Something good is not going to fall in your lap. You have to make something happen.”

The Gamecocks return home with a mid-week game against Presbyterian before playing a home series against No. 5 Vanderbilt (28-9, 11-4 SEC), the defending national champions who lead the Eastern Division. In the second half of the conference schedule, USC also must play No. 1 Texas A&M (33-3) and No. 2 LSU (31-6).

“The schedule is obviously going to be very difficult, but that’s what playing in this league is all about,” Holbrook said. “You’ve just got to play well and, hopefully some good things will happen to our team.”

Those hopes begin with strong outings from the top two starters – right-hander Wil Crowe and left-hander Jack Wynkoop – against the Commodores. The two haven’t won a game since the Kentucky series as Crowe’s ERA has jumped two runs to 4.91 and Wynkoop’s has jumped one run to 3.20. Both were hit hard by the Gators.

“Those two guys have to pitch well, and they’ll be the first to tell you that, to give us the opportunity to win. They’re our most experienced, they’re our most talented, they’re our best guys,” Holbrook said. “I have the utmost confidence in them. They need to pitch the way they’re capable.”

The defense continues to be erratic with 20 errors in 15 conference games. Only first baseman Kyle Martin, second baseman Max Schrock, and outfielders Elliott Caldwell and Gene Cone have been consistent threats at the plate for a team batting .258 in the SEC.

Not one part of USC’s game is picking up the other.

“It’s a team game, and we need to perform to our capability offensively and defensively,” Holbrook said. “We’re talented enough to win, but we have to play well in all facets of the game. Right now, we’re lacking consistency in that regard.”

The poor play also has made a portion of USC’s significant fan base unhappy with the coaching staff and the players. The fans have gotten used to those 40-win seasons and postseason runs, but Holbrook says the team can’t dwell on their displeasure.

“I can’t worry about any of that stuff. My job is to coach this team,” he said. “I know we have a lot of supportive fans and a lot of people who care. That’s one of the great things about this baseball program. But they’re not any more upset than we are, believe me. We invest plenty of hours day-in and day-out, and no one invests more time and effort and work trying to have a good season than our players.”

With 15 conference games and four mid-week games remaining, the Gamecocks must get hot at this very moment if they’re going to have any chance to achieve at the same level that so many previous teams have.

“We’re not going to throw the towels in. We’re going to try to accomplish something great this season, and I still believe we can,” Holbrook said. “I’ll believe that until the last pitch is thrown. I’ve got to make sure our players believe that as well.”

TRENDING DOWNWARD

USC baseball, by the numbers, after starting pitchers Wil Crowe (3-4), Jack Wynkoop (4-4) and Taylor Widener (1-4) suffered losses against Florida:

38

Runs allowed against Florida – the first time USC gave up double-digit runs in all three games of an SEC series.

2001

The last season USC lost four straight SEC series.

3-9

The Gamecocks’ conference record since the opening sweep of Kentucky.

5.63

The ERA of the USC pitching staff in 15 conference games (it’s 3.75 in all games).

8th

USC’s place in the SEC standings, in a four-way tie at 6-9 with Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama.

1997

The last time the Gamecocks finished with a losing record in the SEC.

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