COLUMBIA — Hundreds of coaching decisions comprise a college baseball season, especially one that stretches to its 60th game in the NCAA tournament regionals, as South Carolina’s did Monday afternoon against Liberty.
Though no one decision makes or breaks a season, USC owes a large part of its 6-4 victory over Liberty, and three-win sweep through the Columbia Regional, to coach Chad Holbrook’s choices regarding sophomore Kyle Martin.
Entering the tournament, Martin played in just 28 of USC’s 57 games, with 12 starts — seven at first base, five as the designated hitter. He was hitting .246 (14 of 57) with three extra-base hits, including one home run, and four RBIs.
In all three regional games, Holbrook elected to start Martin at first base. He delivered and earned regional most outstanding player honors by hitting 6 of 12 with four runs scored, six RBIs and a three-run homer. He didn’t make an error in the field.
Monday’s game resumed in the bottom of the fifth inning, after weather suspended it Sunday. USC was up 4-2. After Grayson Greiner led off with a single, Holbrook decided to sacrifice bunt with Martin, a broad-shouldered power hitter who sac bunted twice this year and once last year. The move worked. Martin’s sac bunt advanced Greiner to second. Greiner scored what ended up being a crucial run when the next batter, Graham Saiko, singled.
When asked later if he is usually a skilled bunter, Martin smiled. “We did a lot of work on it lately, so I just tried to get the bunt down,” he said.
During the regular season, Martin succeeded at times as a pinch hitter, and he had a chance to play more recently when first baseman LB Dantzler nursed an injured shoulder. Martin started five of six games at first from May 10-17. Before that, he hadn’t started at first since March 22 and hadn’t started period since March 29, as Bishop England graduate Brison Celek got most of the starts at designated hitter (24 at regular season’s end).
Dantzler started at first base again for the three games preceding the NCAA tournament. But Dantzler, USC’s best hitter, looked uncomfortable in the field.
“He had a bad weekend at Mississippi State defensively (in the regular season finale series),” Holbrook said. “He wasn’t making the plays that he normally should make. It had gotten a little bit psychological with him over there.”
So for Friday’s regional opener against Saint Louis, Holbrook bumped Celek out of the designated hitter spot in favor of Dantzler, and put Martin at first, because he is a superior defender to Dantzler.
“When you get to this point in the season, you have to put your best defensive team on the field,” Holbrook said.
Martin did more than just play solid defense. He sparked a USC offense that scored seven, 19 and six runs in the regional. The Gamecocks are now 27-1 this season when scoring six-plus runs. They entered the regional hitting .281 as a team. In the regional, they hit .345.
“I felt like, over the course of the season, we were forcing our pitching staff to be perfect too much,” Holbrook said. “We weren’t doing enough for our pitching staff. This weekend, we did enough.”
Holbrook said he isn’t sure about his super regional plan for first base. But it seems Martin benefits from regular game action instead of sporadic hitting duties.
“I got comfortable,” Martin said. “Hopefully the more I play, the better I get.”