Marcus Mooney’s return adds some pop to Gamecocks’ lineup, and just in time

After missing nearly a month with a hamstring injury, USC shortstop Marcus Mooney returned to bat 7-for-10 in last weekend's series at No. 8 Texas A&M. (Richard Shiro/AP/File)

COLUMBIA — For almost a month, all Marcus Mooney could do was hit. South Carolina would go on the road, and its junior shortstop would head to the cages inside Carolina Stadium, to hack away at frustration over how his team was playing, and his inability to be of any help.

“The only thing I could do was swing,” Mooney said. “They didn’t want me running, they didn’t want me bending over for ground balls. The only thing I could focus on was hitting, so that’s what I focused on, and it showed.”

It did last weekend, when Mooney returned from a strained hamstring in a big way, bashing seven hits including his first home run to lead the Gamecocks to a much-needed series victory at No. 8 Texas A&M. With Mooney back, the moribund USC lineup finally seemed to click, and kept at it Tuesday in a 17-0 rout of USC Upstate.

The timing couldn’t be better — the Gamecocks are finally hitting the ball as No. 1 LSU arrives for a three-game set beginning 7 p.m. Thursday. USC (31-22, 12-15 SEC) appeared to play itself back into NCAA Tournament contention in College Station, and now may need to win the series against the nation’s top-ranked squad to earn a 16th consecutive postseason bid.

“Obviously it’s important, and I think it would be a huge statement if were able to win this series,” said USC head coach Chad Holbrook. “But listen, the task is so formidable, we have to think about (Thursday) night. If we start thinking about three games with these guys, they’ll overwhelm us.”

Having Mooney back certainly helps. The shortstop’s return shored up a defense that played error-free at Texas A&M, and bolstered a lineup that enjoyed its best-hitting SEC series. Mooney at one point reached base in nine consecutive plate appearances, finishing with five RBI and his first career homer, a three-run shot that propelled USC to victory in the opener.

“I told him when he came in the dugout, ‘I did not see that home run coming,’ said first baseman Kyle Martin, USC’s leading hitter. “But he’ll hit a couple of in BP, and he’s shown he’s got a little pop.”

Mooney hit .275 last season, but this year had been dogged by hamstring issues since preseason camp. His appearance April 10 against Florida was his last until May 6, when he played one inning against Wofford in a tune-up for his return to the everyday lineup at Texas A&M.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “We weren’t playing up to our capabilities, and it was really making me mad being at home and not being on the road. I did everything I could on the bench getting ready for when I came back, and I just did what I knew I could do. I knew I could play like that all along. I just didn’t think it would be like that.”

No one expected a 7-of-10 weekend, and an SEC Player of the Week award — the first for a Gamecock this season.

“Marcus is playing with some juice. He’s playing with some energy. His confidence is back,” Holbrook said. “No, I didn’t expect him to swing the bat the way he has, but I know he’s a pretty dang good hitter. ... He go off to such a tough start, then the injuries happened to him, and he just didn’t get consistent opportunities to get into a rhythm. He has now. He’s playing great baseball.”

USC still has its issues offensively, and they stand out when compared to LSU. The Tigers (44-8, 19-7) lead the SEC with a .319 average, while the Gamecocks are 13th at .262. LSU’s weakest-hitting starter is batting .275 — which is better than all but three regulars in the USC lineup.

One of those, second baseman Max Schrock, played at Texas A&M with a sprained wrist which continues to hamper him. “He’s going to have to play in pain,” Holbrook said. But in baseball, both hitting and a lack of it can be contagious, and the Gamecocks enter this pivotal weekend hoping to continue a surge that’s seen them score 49 runs in their last four games.

“Last weekend when we all put it together and everyone was hitting, that brought a lot of confidence to everyone,” Mooney said. “We’re planning on bringing it into this weekend against LSU, hoping to do the same thing. And with all that confidence, maybe we’ll bring it into the SEC tournament and get where we need to be at the end of the season.”