COLUMBIA - At the exact halfway point of the SEC season, South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook gathered his team along the first base line of Carolina Stadium on Sunday and searched for answers.
The conversation couldn't wait until his team escaped to the privacy of its home locker room. There was urgency following No. 5 South Carolina's 6-5 loss to No. 15 Florida. For the second time in two days, the Gamecocks saw an eighth-inning lead collapse into defeat.
On Sunday, first-place position in the SEC East also evaporated.
"It's tough," USC first baseman Kyle Martin said. "Thought we had it in the bag today, but just couldn't hang onto it."
So Holbrook huddled his players. He didn't provide all the details of their postgame chat, but the timing couldn't be overlooked.
Thanks to Florida's four-run eighth inning, South Carolina will enter a week without at least a share of the SEC East lead for the first time this season. Even atop the division, the Gamecocks haven't met expectations.
The first half of league play has been fun, filled with late-inning magic and walkoff home runs, but South Carolina has often relied more on smoke and mirrors than sheer dominance.
The result is an uneven 8-7 record through the first half of the SEC schedule.
"I still, as I sit up here, I consider myself fortunate and my team fortunate," Holbrook said Sunday. "We're one game off the pace, and I don't think we've swung the bats well. And I don't think we've played in league play the way we're capable of playing. And we're one game off the pace.
"We're lucky to be where we are."
Luck is a tricky thing to rely on in baseball. It's never consistent, always fleeting. When it's gone, teams are often left scratching their heads.
Luck was missing from South Carolina's dugout this weekend. For the second straight day, the Gamecocks got a strong effort from their starting pitcher. Wil Crowe went 71/3 innings, carefully working around 10 hits to strike out four and walk only one.
Florida scored five runs with Crowe on the mound, but only two were earned. One of those came after he left the game in the eighth inning. That's when the wheels fell off, as they did Saturday when the bullpen allowed three runs combined in the eighth and ninth.
Freshman Taylor Widener relieved Crowe, but he was knocked from the game before recording an out. Widener, who inherited loaded bases, allowed two hits and one run.
"I don't think I was fair to Taylor," said Holbrook, who was especially hard on himself following the game. "I think I made a few mistakes in my choices with the bullpen and the way we used it today. I told the team after the game that I feel responsible.
"I've got to make some better decisions, apparently. I didn't push the right buttons today."
The schedule won't soften for South Carolina, which travels to Auburn next weekend. Three of the Gamecocks' final five SEC series are on the road, including a critical finale at Vanderbilt next month.
That gives Holbrook plenty of time to work out the kinks in his lineup. He said multiple times there would be an evaluation of playing time, making sure the right players are on the field. Still, getting back on track won't be easy.
The coach didn't even let his players leave the field Sunday before getting to work, shifting attention to the season's second half.
"This program prides itself on playing with toughness and playing with pride and playing with emotion," Holbrook said. "When the chips are down, I think we can circle the wagons with the best of them. That's what I expect to see.
"We all know what this program is about and how our guys respond to adversity. When our backs are against the wall, we tend to play our best. That's what I hope to see, and that's what I think I will see."
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