SOCON OPENER

Who: No. 4 The Citadel vs. No. 5 App State

When: 10 a.m. today. Where: Fluor Field, Greenville

Records: Citadel 32-24, 18-12; App State 28-22, 13-14

Radio: 1450-AM

The paths of Citadel right fielder Tyler Griffin and South Carolina second baseman Max Schrock converged on April 9 at Carolina Stadium in Columbia.

In the third inning of USC’s 6-5 victory, Griffin laid down a sacrifice bunt and raced toward first base. Schrock, the Gamecocks’ freshman second baseman, also sprinted to first to field a throw from USC’s pitcher.

The throw was not on target, and Schrock had to step into the baseline to make the catch.

“It was too late for me to react and we collided,” Griffin said. “My knee went into his face. It looked like he got the worst of it, but it didn’t end up that way.”

Indeed, Schrock suffered a mild concussion and whiplash, “basically like he’s been in a car accident,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said.

But Schrock wound up missing only two games, and it was Griffin, a power-hitting junior from Gainesville, Fla., who sat out a big chunk of the Bulldogs’ season.

“When I landed on the bag, I stepped on his foot and kind of rolled my foot,” Griffin said. “I broke two bones in it.”

Griffin missed 18 games total before returning to The Citadel’s lineup last week. That bodes well for the fourth-seeded Bulldogs in the Southern Conference tournament, which begins today in Greenville.

After spending three weeks on crutches and hitting for only about a week before his return, Griffin has gone 10 for 17 (.588) with three home runs and 13 RBIs in four games. That was good enough to earn the 6-1, 185-pound switch-hitter SoCon player of the week honors for the final week of the regular season.

For the season, Griffin is batting .310 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs despite playing in just 38 games. Projected over 56 games, that’s 16 homers and 63 RBIs, which is SoCon player of the year territory.

“It means a lot to the team to have him back,” said catcher Joe Jackson. “It has boosted everyone’s morale. He came back and produced right off the bat, which is pretty amazing.”

Amazing, but not surprising to coach Fred Jordan, who cited Griffin’s ability to hit right out of the gate. Last year, Griffin hit .395 with two homers and 14 RBIs in the Bulldogs’ first 12 games. This season, it was .404 with three homers and 16 RBIs in the first 12 games.

“He’s just a hot starter, so what he did in his first week back did not surprise us,” Jordan said. “We just hope he can keep it going for another week or two.”

Though the Bulldogs did not fall apart in Griffin’s absence — they won 10 straight after his injury — there’s no doubt having him back for the SoCon tournament can only help.

The Citadel, which opens against No. 5 Appalachian State, will need every bit of the offense that’s produced a league-best 63 home runs and 403 runs this season. That’s especially true given the uncertainty behind SoCon pitcher of the year Austin Pritcher in the rotation, and in the bullpen.

Jordan has put Griffin back into the five-hole, where he can help protect cleanup hitter Bo Thompson (.296, 14 home runs, 50 RBIs), who has walked a league-high 52 times.

With their lineup intact, the Bulldogs are eager to put last weekend’s two losses at UNC Greensboro behind them.

“We’re hungry,” Griffin said. “We could have finished as high as second, but we ended up fourth. But we can’t dwell on that. We’re in the tournament, and now we’ve got to win it.”

Jordan said he will start Pritcher (8-2, 2.45 ERA) against Appalachian State, with junior lefty Logan Cribb (4-3, 3.53 ERA) set for the second game.

The third game would likely go to sophomore James Reeves (1-1, 3.35 ERA), provided he is not used in relief in the first two games.

Freshman Austin Mason (3-4, 6.63 ERA), who had been the Sunday starter, is day-to-day with elbow tenderness. “We’re not going to take any risks with a young guy,” Jordan said.