COLUMBIA — One by one, they trickled out of the dugout Wednesday afternoon, looking nothing like a team that lost four of its first six Southeastern Conference games and was swept at home last weekend for the first time since 1999.
Pitcher Colby Holmes stood in front of the dugout, took soft toss and gleefully smacked a few balls out of Carolina Stadium. Several position players ascended the mound to see who could throw the hardest, as outfielder Sean Sullivan tracked the velocity with a radar gun behind home plate.
At one point, second baseman Max Schrock whizzed a ball that accidentally sailed into the group of players behind the plate, sending them scrambling and yelping in different directions. Then shortstop Joey Pankake stood on the rubber and showed why he was considered a promising pitching prospect, by throwing back-to-back 91 mph pitches.
“We’re having pitching tryouts,” Pankake told head coach Chad Holbrook when he walked onto the field.
“I think we need to have hitting tryouts,” Holbrook joked, ragging on his players about their offensive struggles to begin SEC play.
The players and Holbrook chuckled, then laughed even harder when broad-shouldered designated hitter Brison Celek, a Bishop England High graduate, tried his hand at pitching, managing just 69 mph.
The sky was bright and blue, and it obviously has not fallen on the Gamecocks after last weekend’s sweep by Arkansas.
While they understand the importance of this weekend’s home series against Texas A&M, which begins tonight with a game on ESPNU, they are ready to tackle the rest of their league schedule like they did last season, when they started 1-5 and then won 16 of their next 19 games.
After the slow start last year, “I was just like, ‘This isn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be,’” said sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner.
Though he displayed no sense of panic Wednesday while zipping a couple 88 mph fastballs off the mound, he said, “there’s a little bit of sense of urgency because if there wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a very good situation.”
Last season, USC opened with a sweep at Kentucky and lost two of three at home to Florida. A 2-1 series victory the next weekend at Vanderbilt started the Gamecocks’ surge. To do it again this year, they will have to handle a Texas A&M team that will test Greiner’s ability to throw out base runners.
The Aggies have stolen 46 bases on 56 attempts, including 11 of 13 by shortstop Mikey Reynolds, a .426 hitter who is one of the SEC’s best players.
Assistant coach Sammy Esposito has worked with Greiner on footwork and accuracy while trying to throw out runners. A lesson Greiner has learned: “You can’t try to throw it as hard as you can, because you’ll sail one into centerfield,” he said.
Greiner is USC’s leading hitter in SEC play — with a .250 average. Through two conference series, USC has a .172 team average, due in part to Arkansas’ strong pitchers. Just three USC regulars are hitting better than .200. Schrock, a prodigious hitter, is 2 of 21.
Holbrook wants his players to be more assertive with two strikes, and he saw them do that in Tuesday’s 3-1 win against College of Charleston.
He also wants them to remember the words on their locker room wall, a paraphrased version of a quote from the early 1600s English playwright and poet Ben Jonson: “A man knows not his own strength until he has met adversity.”
Said Holbrook: “We’ve met it. Let’s see how strong we are.”