COLUMBIA — Day-to-day.
That’s essentially how South Carolina head baseball coach Chad Holbrook described the condition of standout Max Schrock, who strained his left Achilles’ tendon legging out a double last weekend at Tennessee. But the same could also be said of the Gamecocks, who are running out of time to state their case for a 16th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
To say the least, squandering two leads last weekend in Knoxville against an 18-win Volunteers squad was a devastating blow to a USC team which days earlier had put itself back in the NCAA conversation with its series victory over No. 6 Vanderbilt. Now things are rather desperate, with the hottest team in the SEC — Auburn, winners of six straight — coming to Carolina Stadium this weekend, followed by sets at No. 3 Texas A&M and at home against No. 1 LSU to close the regular season.
To boil it down: USC (26-19, 9-12 SEC) has to go 6-3 over those final three league series to get to .500 in conference play, which would likely squeeze the Gamecocks into the NCAA field. Over the past decade, just one SEC team with a winning overall record and a .500 or better league slate has been left out of the tournament (Alabama in 2007), and that came in a season when the SEC was much weaker than it is now. But to get there, USC essentially has to win two of its last three league series — after winning just two of seven to this point.
That’s a lot to ask. Understandable, then, why Holbrook isn’t looking any further than Friday night’s opener against the Tigers (30-16, 10-11), when the unflappable Jack Wynkoop takes the mound looking to deliver a third consecutive sterling effort following his complete game against Vanderbilt and his shutout in the opener against Tennessee.
“If I have to analyze it and dive into the numbers of our remaining 11 games, from a win-loss perspective getting into the postseason conversation is certainly not a stretch. It’s certainly doable. But there are incredible challenges in those remaining 11 games that I’m certainly aware of,” Holbrook, whose team also has non-conference games remaining against Wofford and USC Upstate, said Thursday.
“So every game is magnified, because we only have 11 left, and obviously we need to win some games. But when you put more emphasis on one game ... your kids might not relax and play the way they’re capable of playing. I’ve had a team that’s been tight from time to time this year. I’ve sensed it. Trying too hard, not playing up to their capability for different reasons. I’m not saying nerves or being tight is the only reason, but I’ve seen it from time to time. And we’re playing one baseball game tomorrow night, and we’ll try our damndest to win it. And then we’ll come back to the park Saturday and try to do it again. We’re trying to win one game. That’s going to be our message these last 11.”
That strategy is reflected in Holbrook’s pitching rotation for the Auburn series, which consists of Wynkoop for Friday’s 7 p.m. opener, and TBA for both Saturday and Sunday. Essentially, he’s going to use whomever he needs in whatever game USC has a chance to win, without worrying about the next game until he gets there.
“Every game is obviously very important. And we need to do everything that we can if we’re in a position to win tomorrow night,” he said. “I’m not going to try to save somebody and maybe put us in danger of losing just because I’m thinking about Saturday. I’m not going to do that the rest of the year. ... If we need Clarke Schmidt or Taylor Widener or Vince Fiori tomorrow night, then we’re going to use them to try to win, and we’ll worry about Saturday when it gets here. That’s the thought process.”
It’s not the only change in approach for this stretch run. Holbrook says he may start to use some different arms out of the bullpen, understandable given how USC’s relievers have been exploited in the Gamecocks’ last three conference losses. A 1-0 deficit in the fifth against Vanderbilt turned into a 12-0 loss. One 3-2 lead in the sixth over Tennessee turned into a 4-3 loss, another into a 10-4 setback.
“We’re going to do some things maybe a little bit different in the bullpen here these last 11 games. We’ll probably incorporate a lot more guys. We’ll see if that works,” Holbrook said. “We’ll use a number of guys, I think. At least, that’s the plan going into tomorrow night. Try to match them up as best we can, not to put too much responsibility on one individual pitcher, per se. Try to do it as a team. ... Maybe we haven’t given enough guys consistent opportunities to show what they can do.”
As for Schrock, USC’s third-leading hitter at .312, Holbrook said the second baseman had been feeling some soreness in his left Achilles’ tendon “for a period of time,” but it wasn’t bad enough to pull him off the field. After he exacerbated it Friday night, it was. It’s easy to see why the Gamecocks are being cautious here — St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright will miss the rest of this season after tearing an Achilles’ tendon trying to outrun a popup in a game last weekend.
Holbrook said Schrock has been swinging to bat well in BP, and his pain level has subsided. But they’re still being very careful with a player who’d been in the lineup every game until he missed the latter two contests at Tennessee.
“We’ve done just a little bit of conditioning with him to test it, but we haven’t pushed him hard,” Holbrook said. “That Achilles’ tendon is a very, very fragile part of the human body. And if you do damage to it, you’re looking at a six- to nine-month injury, maybe longer. So we’ve been very careful, and I will still be very careful with him this weekend. If the trainers feel and tell me that I’m putting him in danger, or it’s a risk in playing, then I’m not playing him.”
For a middle infielder, that doesn’t seem to bode well. So Schrock is day-to-day, much like the team he plays for, which is probably three SEC losses — barring a miracle run at the league tournament in Hoover, Ala. — from missing the NCAAs for the first time since 1999. “We’re in a difficult spot, and the only way to get out of it is to go on a winning streak and win some games,” Holbrook said. They’ll try to do it one game at a time.
— What’s gotten into Auburn as of late? The Tigers were 15-10 after a loss to Georgia Tech on March 24, and are 15-6 since. Auburn’s team ERA of 3.24 ranks fourth in the SEC, and they’re also fielding .975. They don’t give many games away, Holbrook said, and they’re rolling after series wins over Georgia and Ole Miss. “They’ve got a lot of momentum in their dugout,” USC’s coach added, “and obviously that’s a little bit different than what we have in ours.”
— John Pawlowski may no longer be the head coach at Auburn, but there’s still one College of Charleston connection on the Plains: sophomore righthander Steven Barranca, who redshirted the 2014 season for the Cougars before transferring to Auburn. Barranca is sitting out this season under transfer rules. Sunny Golloway, the former coach of an Oklahoma squad which USC faced a few times in the postseason, replaced Pawlowski following the 2013 campaign.
— In non-baseball news, USC guard Tiffany Mitchell is among those invited to try out for the 2016 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, for which Gamecocks’ head coach Dawn Staley will be an assistant. Mitchell delves into a pool comprised mainly of WNBA players, 12 of which will be chosen for Rio. The team’s first mini-camp opens next week in Las Vegas.
— USC’s women’s basketball team has added another high-profile opponent to its 2015-16 schedule: Texas, whom the Gamecocks will face in Austin as part of an expanded SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Longhorns went 24-11 last season, when they fell to Connecticut in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks will also host UConn in Columbia next season.
— And finally, a farewell to Billy Donovan, who has been a class act throughout his long tenure at Florida, and is now off to Oklahoma City and the NBA. From a reporter’s standpoint, it’s tough to say goodbye to Donovan, one of the most quotable guys in the business. But the time was right for him to go, given the struggles he endured with his last team in Gainesville, and the talent he inherits in OKC. If I’m AD Jeremy Foley, my list of potential successors consists of two names: Dayton’s Archie Miller, and Xavier’s Chris Mack.