Finally 'clicks' at the plate for South Carolina junior infielder

South Carolina's Scott Wingo (right) is batting .338 for the Gamecocks, who host Mississippi State in a three-game series this weekend.

COLUMBIA -- Not that long ago, Scott Wingo had a better shot of getting hit rather than getting a hit. (That's really only a slight exaggeration.)

Now look at South Carolina's plucky second baseman. He's tied for the team lead in home runs as the Gamecocks (20-5) near the midpoint of the season. (That's no exaggeration.)

"Yeah, I like that a lot better (than getting hit)," Wingo said, smiling, this week after hitting his fifth home run of the year.

Wingo and No. 12 USC host Mississippi State this weekend in an attempt to build on its 5-1 start in SEC play.

But this isn't a story about Wingo turning into some homer-hitting hulk.

After all, five home runs isn't a big team-leading number through 25 games. And Wingo did manage as many homers last year as a sophomore.

Here's the issue, though: Those five homers last year came in a season in which Wingo batted .196, in 153 at-bats. And that was coming off a .230 freshman season.

Wingo had 59 hits in his first two seasons (.211) -- and he'd been hit 28 times.

"I was obviously doing awful," Wingo said.

So, the fact that he's batting .338 midway through the season is really pretty incredible.

"He's done a lot of things to become a good player," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. "There are no guarantees when you do that, but you put yourself in position for some good things to happen."

It's also been important to the Gamecocks, who are patiently waiting for some of their supposedly better hitters to come out of early-season funks. In the meantime, Wingo has performed.

"Scott's been a big reason why we've been able to win some games because some of our other guys have gotten out of the blocks slowly," associate head coach Chad Holbrook said. "He's picked up the slack. It's been a neat and pleasant surprise for him.

"We always knew Scott was a good player, but I didn't know he would come this far, this fast as a hitter."

Wingo deserves credit for the rapid progress. But first he deserves credit for staying afloat.

Tanner said he's seen plenty of young players flame out after hitting .200 in a season. And, yet, Wingo continued to scrap and battle and fight to stay alive in every at-bat of every game -- even if it meant getting hit was the best way to get on base.

Wingo kept a smile on his face and bounced around the diamond as if he were an All-SEC slugger.

"A lot of times, the game will destroy you," Tanner said. "A lot of times, the game will humble you in a way you've never been humbled before.

"It's a cruel game and a lot of guys can't do what he's done. A lot of guys can't get back in a position to get it turned around and be successful."

Tanner added that "a lot of guys can't get back on the field," meaning they lose their spots. That's where Tanner deserves some credit.

He saw something in Wingo, even when he was nothing but a hook-happy hitter from the left side. Tanner kept penciling him in the lineup, week after week.

"The guy brings great defense and great energy," Tanner said. "I believe in him. At times I get frustrated with him, but I believe in him. I think you can win with guys like Wingo."

Wingo, clearly, would sometimes become frustrated with himself, also.

"At times, it was tough," the Mauldin product said. "I just had to keep battling and tell myself that one day it was going to click."

You could almost hear that click a month and a half ago.

It wasn't coincidental, either. Wingo worked for it.

He said he even worked with his father, a former letterwinner at Clemson, during Christmas break when the temperatures were hovering around freezing.

The result this spring is a new plate approach in which he waits as long as he possibly can before committing to a pitch.

Previously, he was swinging too early and yanking everything -- at least everything he made contact with -- into right field. That was good enough to hit for a decent average in high school, but things are different in the SEC.

"Nothing teaches you to get out of stubbornness like failure," Holbrook said.

Now, Wingo is consciously working to hit balls up the middle and to left field.

The result is a higher batting average -- and an on-base percentage that's jumped from .319 last season to a team- leading .516 so far this season.

That's right -- he's on base more than half the time. Waiting on the ball has helped Wingo draw a team-high 16 walks.

He still gets hit every now and then, too. Wingo's nine hit-by-pitches lead the team, and he's setting the school record with each one from now on.

But, for sure, this season for Wingo is about doing the hitting instead of being hit.

"He's a different hitter than he was a year ago," Holbrook said.

Pitching change

The Gamecocks will throw all right-handers this weekend, replacing inconsistent freshman left-hander Tyler Webb with senior Jay Brown (1-0, 3.38 ERA) on Sunday.

Senior Blake Cooper (4-0, 3.32) will go tonight. Junior Sam Dyson (2-0, 4.15) will start Saturday.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).