COLUMBIA — For a proud program with two national championships, it was about as sad a scene imaginable. Before the few remaining fans at Carolina Stadium, Vanderbilt poured on runs in the late innings, exuding a cockiness which was evident in the jawing coming from the visiting dugout. For South Carolina, it all added up to another lopsided loss in SEC play, and another blow to a team whose 15-year NCAA Tournament streak may be nearing an end.
It was painful to watch. The crowd support which has made Carolina Stadium one of the toughest home ballparks in the nation was nonexistent from the start on a damp and gloomy Thursday night. What was supposed to be one of the showpiece series of the SEC season — enough to lure SEC Network and Paul Finebaum to broadcast live from the park on Friday — began with a 12-0 rout. By the end, the crowd was so spare and the stadium so quiet, it was easy to hear every smirking word coming from the Commodores, even all the way up in the press box.
Getting blown out on the road is one thing — but watching a team which has won two recent national titles having a boot placed on its neck by a visiting club was something else altogether. In fairness, it was a 1-0 game in the fifth inning, fill-in starter Vince Fiori did a tremendous job for the Gamecocks in a dire situation, and USC held back some of its best bullpen arms once the score got out of hand. But the end result was still a fifth straight loss, the longest skid in a year for a South Carolina squad which has lost its last four SEC games by a combined score of 50-10.
So the Gamecocks turn to Jack Wynkoop in tonight’s game to try avoid the program’s first six-game skid since USC lost the final seven games of the 1996 campaign — the last season under former head coach June Raines. There’s a real chance the Gamecocks could miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. No wonder, then, Finebaum opened broadcast from Columbia with an interview with USC athletics director Ray Tanner, in which he asked about the state of the baseball program under Tanner’s successor Chad Holbrook.
“Baseball is like a lot of other sports, you go through peaks and valleys. I said to coach Holbrook the other day, it’s almost like the perfect storm. It’s poor defense at the wrong times, and a lack of hitting, and pitching goes south. Some of those things happen, but it seems like it’s happened to him all at once,” Tanner told Finebaum.
“I believe in what (Holbrook) is doing. I believe in the program. It hasn’t been great lately, but I think it’s temporary. I think we’ll be back to where we need to be sooner rather than later.”
Indeed, it’s very difficult to pinpoint one thing as the cause for all this. Lapses on defense have been untimely — as was the case Thursday, when Max Schrock’s errant throw allowed two unearned runs to score and cracked a door which Vanderbilt quickly kicked open. Some of USC’s more reliable hitters, like Mount Pleasant native Connor Bright, are mired in dreadful slumps.
And the pitching staff hasn’t been as consistent as Holbrook hoped — something certainly evident Thursday, when the Commodores teed off on USC’s relievers after Fiori delivered a clutch five innings which kept South Carolina in the game.
“We’ve been a little inconsistent. (Pitching coach Jerry) Meyers will be the first to tell you we’ve walked a few more than we would have liked to, or we’re accustomed to walking around here. We’ve given some people some free bases. That’s putting some pressure on our defense that we usually don’t have. We pride ourselves on making our opponents earn everything they get, and we’ve given away a little too much over the last several weeks, and that’s been a contributing factor to where we are,” Holbrook said prior to the Vanderbilt series.
“We have some guys who are capable and have done it against the best teams. We just haven’t been consistent enough. And not just pitching — we haven’t been consistent as a team. It’s a team thing. We haven’t been as consistent as we’d want to be, and we have 18 games to get consistent. And I believe we can. That doesn’t guarantee we’re going to win. I just want us to play like we’re capable of playing. We haven’t quite been able to put all three phases of the game together.”
There’s still a lot of baseball to be played, and lesser SEC opponents such as Tennessee and Auburn are coming up on the schedule, and should the Gamecocks get a few more performances like the one Fiori delivered Thursday night, they’re absolutely capable of securing a 16th straight NCAA berth. But the cumulative effect of all these losses, so many of them blowouts, clearly takes a toll. If Carolina Stadium is again sparsely populated for a Friday night game against the fifth-ranked team in America, that would be a telling sign.
Tanner told Finebaum that he thought Holbrook was the right man for the job when he promoted his former assistant, and he still believes that to be the case. Maybe this is a bump in the road, like the one Tanner hit in 1999 after his Gamecocks made the NCAA Regionals the year before. If so, it’s a large and jarring one, and USC felt it with each run Vanderbilt piled on in a near-empty stadium on Thursday night.
“South Carolina baseball, when you put that jersey on, you don’t walk down that hallway and walk in that dugout thinking you’re the underdog, I can assure you of that,” Holbrook said. “The day I feel like I’m an underdog, I’ll do something else.”
— South Carolina’s football opener this coming season isn’t the only time USC will play North Carolina in Charlotte. Tanner told Finebaum that the Gamecocks and Tar Heels will also meet next season in baseball at Charlotte’s year-old downtown minor league park. “I think North Carolina and South Carolina should play every year,” Holbrook later told Finebaum, “and Charlotte is a great place to play.”
— Fiori’s 82 pitches Thursday night marked his longest outing at USC, and Holbrook said he has to gradually stretch the former reliever before he can ask more of him. “He’ll probably get maybe 90 to 100 next start,” Holbrook said. “Relief guys just get so engrained on short stints, and they throw more during the week, and their preparation is a little bit different than a starter. So he hadn’t been groomed to start up until this point .... He gave us a great effort. I didn’t have any fault with Vince Fiori.”
— USC saved relievers Cody Mincey and Taylor Widener on Thursday night, perhaps one reason that game got so out of hand at the end. Expect an all-arms-on-deck effort in relief of Wynkoop (if needed) tonight against the Commodores.
— On the basketball front, there’s still no word from Frank Martin on the status of suspended forwards Demetrius Henry and Shamiek Sheppard, but USC’s continued recruiting efforts likely speak volumes. The Gamecocks already have P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva signed for next season, and this week added another signee when Washington, D.C., shooting guard Jamall Gregory inked a Letter of Intent with the Gamecocks.
And Martin isn’t done. According to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, South Carolina still has a chance with Seton Hall transfer Jared Sina, a point guard who’s also considering Michigan and Boston College, among others. USC has a verbal commitment from center Travon Bunch of Racine, Wis. And multiple outlets have reported that Tevin Mack, a forward from Columbia who considered USC before signing with VCU, was released from his Letter of Intent after head coach Shaka Smart left for Texas.