THE SEASON THAT South Carolina baseball fans didn’t expect to see anytime soon is here.
After losing the weekend series to Tennessee, the Gamecocks have dropped to 26-19 overall and 9-12 in the SEC and likely will see their streaks of 15 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and 40-win seasons come to end. USC Chad Holbrook said Sunday that his team doesn’t deserve an NCAA bid at this stage of the season.
The Gamecocks also are headed toward their first losing season in conference play since 1997, former coach Ray Tanner’s first season, unless they can find a way to win six-of-nine against Auburn, No. 3 Texas A&M and No. 1 LSU.
With 11 games remaining in the regular season, USC is not going to reach 40 wins unless it goes on a tear and carries it over into the SEC tournament. Given the opponents ahead of them, that will be a difficult proposition. USC’s NCAA RPI has slipped to No. 68 nationally.
Holbrook said he can’t worry about the bigger picture because of the urgency each game brings.
“I need to focus every ounce of my energy on those 11 games by trying to win our next one and get some momentum going. I’ve been frustrated from time to time, but we’ve got baseball to play and we’ve got some opportunities in front of us against some great teams,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to play at an extremely high level starting with the game Friday night against Auburn. Until that last pitch is thrown, I’ve got to believe something good is going to happen.”
USC doesn’t play a midweek game this week because of exams, which might be just as well given its recent lack of success against non-conference opponents. A week ago this time, it seemed as if the Gamecocks, who were coming off a series win against highly ranked Vanderbilt, would be able to build momentum.
Then came the 1-3 week against Furman and Tennessee, when the offense generated a total of 12 runs on 24 hits. That’s not a recipe for winning unless the pitching is good, as was the case with junior left-hander Jack Wynkoop’s performance in Friday’s 4-0 win.
USC’s batting average of .254 would be the lowest since the 1973 team hit .252, two years before the introduction of the aluminum bat into the college game. The Gamecocks also could score fewer than 300 runs in a season for the first time since 1979.
“I thought we were going to be a good offensive team. We’ve got good offensive players, but we just haven’t performed as consistently, obviously, as we would have liked,” Holbrook said. “We got into a rut when some of the guys struggled in a big way. Some of our guys hitting sixth through ninth have just struggled to get it going.”
The lack of offense has left no wiggle room for the team if the pitching or defense also struggles. The team ERA is 3.84, the highest since the 2009 season. Even with an errorless four games last week, the team is fielding .971, one of the two lowest figures over the past 14 seasons.
This team lacks star power – although both Wynkoop and senior first baseman Kyle Martin have posted standout seasons – and lacks a steady lineup Holbrook can write onto the lineup card because of so many inconsistent performers. It hasn’t helped that injuries have hit the team in recent weeks, including those to right-hander Wil Crowe, shortstop Marcus Mooney and now second baseman Max Schrock. But USC’s woes began long before the injury bug hit.
If there’s a saving grace, eight of the final 11 games will be at Carolina Stadium. The Gamecocks are 21-7 at home, a stark contrast to their 4-12 road record.
Of course, red-hot Auburn (29-16, 10-11), which has won nine of its past 10 games, is coming to town. The Tigers are looking to change another historical trend for the Gamecocks, who have won 14 straight conference series against them dating to 1997.
“You have to keep working hard and give your players as much confidence as you can. I don’t know of another way,” Holbrook said. “I don’t think I can beat the players up any more. They don’t feel really good right now, either. They have the talent and capability to play at a high level. We’ve got to try to find the answer that will allow us to be a consistent baseball team.”