South Carolina’s hitting improving as matchup with Clemson’s ace approaches
COLUMBIA -- South Carolina hit .210 while winning two of three games on opening weekend against Liberty. Though it was just one series, these were the Gamecocks as everyone last saw them, struggling at the plate in the 2012 College World Series.
USC responded after opening weekend and hit .333 in its next four games — three against Albany and one against Furman, all victories. Liberty remains the best team USC has played so far, but this weekend, in a traveling series against Clemson, the Gamecocks’ bats will be tested much more than they were against the Flames.
“I think we’re ready,” said freshman second baseman Max Schrock. “The way we’re swinging the bat right now, I think we can we can hit anyone. It doesn’t matter who they put out there.”
In Friday’s series opener at Clemson, USC faces sophomore right-hander Daniel Gossett, the Tigers’ ace.
He threw the final 1-2/3 innings of last year’s USC-Clemson series opener in Charleston and allowed two runs in the 11th and last inning of a 3-2 USC victory. He rebounded when the teams played in the NCAA tournament Regional, allowing four hits and two runs in seven innings, while striking out eight and walking three. He took a no decision when USC won 5-4 in 12.
“We’re going to see some pitching starting this weekend that’s going to be ramped up a notch compared to what we’ve seen thus far,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “I am anxious to see how they handle elite level pitching, which we’ll see here starting on Friday.”
All of USC’s hitting numbers were down in 2012. Batting average dropped from .300 and .294 in 2010 and 2011, when the Gamecocks won national titles, to .265 last year, when they were the runners-up. Their on-base plus slugging percentage dipped from .877 to .812 to .739.
USC won its titles thanks largely to pitching, and continues to rely on its arms and defense more than power hitting.
The Gamecocks hit .284 in the 2010 College World Series, compared to .302 before it. But their earned-run average dropped from 3.61 to 2.15. In 2011, the World Series moved to a new, pitcher-friendly park. USC’s batting average went from .296 before Omaha to .263 there. ERA, though, plummeted from 2.60 to 0.88.
Again last season, USC’s pitching was valuable in Omaha, where its ERA was 2.18, versus 3.06 before the World Series. But USC hit just .205 in the World Series, versus .271 before. In two losses to Arizona in the championship series, USC was a combined 9 of 62 (.145) and managed just one run in each game.
Holbrook, USC’s former hitting coach, is optimistic about his team’s bats this season, despite the slow start and having to replace Christian Walker, USC’s best hitter the past two seasons.
“I think we’re going to have a chance to be a good offensive team,” he said. “Our last four games, we’ve had some good at-bats. You don’t have to hit for a high average to go to Omaha and to have a special season.”
More than batting average, Holbrook values the ratio of his hitters’ walks or hit-by-pitches to strikeouts. Because college baseball now uses weaker bats that limit the effectiveness of pure power hitters, the patience required to get on base is paramount.
Last season, that ratio was 0.7, compared to 0.9 in the previous two seasons. This season, against far less dominating pitching than the Gamecocks will see in the Southeastern Conference, they have 39 walks, seven hit-by-pitches and 41 strikeouts.
“That’s the stat I look at more than any stat, if we’re walking more than we strike out,” Holbrook said. “If you do that, you have a chance to win. We’ve got some guys understanding what a quality at-bat is.
“It’s only natural as a baseball player to feel anxiety to get off to a good start, to impress out of the gate. I think you can fall into a trap of trying too hard. I think some of our guys did that and some of them are still doing it. But they’ll relax as they get at-bats and games under their belt, and I think that’s what you’re seeing.”