Neil White

Pressure of high expectations getting to Gamecocks

USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook directs his team against Auburn on Sunday at Carolina Stadium.
USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook directs his team against Auburn on Sunday at Carolina Stadium. jblake@thestate.com

FOR A SOUTH Carolina baseball program used to competing for a national seed or host bid in the NCAA Tournament, this season has come as a shock to the system.

With a No. 75 national RPI and a current spot of 10th place in the conference standings, the Gamecocks (27-21, 10-14 SEC) are staring at their streak of 15 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament coming to an end.

Three seasons removed from three consecutive trips to the College World Series championship finals, the stunning swiftness of the program’s drop has unnerved many followers, who had come to believe postseason baseball success was a given.

USC coach Chad Holbrook, while noting the disappointment of the coaches and players, admits the pressure to sustain that success – especially as the team began an extended struggle after a strong start – has played a role in the downturn.

“There are high expectations with this program and rightfully so. I always want that to be the case. Those kids are human, and they’re 18, 19 years old, and they understand the expectation that goes with playing here,” Holbrook said.

“It’s only natural that when you struggle and you have some losses and your record is not up to standard of what South Carolina baseball is all about, sure they put pressure on themselves and even try harder. Maybe that’s weighing them down a tad.”

It’s clear the talent and depth of this team isn’t comparable to the teams that made title runs, especially when you see Sam Dyson pitching in the major leagues and Jackie Bradley, Blake Cooper, Evan Marzilli, Whit Merrifield, Michael Roth, Christian Walker and Tyler Webb in Triple-A. Bradley, Roth and Walker also have reached the majors in their careers.

Finding the kind of recruits with top-flight ability will be key for the coaching staff. This team’s struggles are encapsulated by the .250 batting average, the lowest figure since the wooden-bat era of the early 1970s. And the offense remains on a pace to score fewer than 300 runs for the first time since 1979.

Without a steady offensive output – the Gamecocks scored two runs on eight hits over 18 innings in consecutive losses to Auburn over the weekend – the pitching staff and defense must be nearly perfect, something that’s rarely the case.

The hitting has played a major role in the Gamecocks losing six of their eight SEC series. It’s not going to get easier down the stretch, with a road series against No. 3 Texas A&M (41-7) and a home series against No. 1 LSU (40-8). But Holbrook said the coaches are doing all they can to help get the hitters untracked.

“We’re an inconsistent offensive team. The kids are working hard and (hitting) coach (Brian) Buscher is working extremely hard with them. We do two sessions a day,” Holbrook said.

“I know how hard those guys work,” he said. “As a coach, it’s frustrating when you don’t see some of the results I think they’ve earned in practice.”

USC has lost 18 of the past 28 games.

“We’ve got eight games left, and everybody in our locker room knows how important those eight games are,” junior infielder DC Arendas said. “Have we played out best? No, we haven’t. But we think the next game we step on the field that we’re going to (play our best). If you don’t think that way, you’ll have a letup. We’ve got the right mindset. We’ve just got to execute.”

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