USC’s Bright settles in to outfield

USC sophomore outfielder Connor Bright is batting .279 this season, with 5 RBIs and only 4 strikeouts.

— Before the season, Connor Bright spent a while talking to South Carolina baseball coach Chad Holbrook in his office. Bright, a Wando High graduate, played sparingly last season as a freshman. He came to USC as a shortstop, but that position was quickly locked down by fellow freshman Joey Pankake.

As Holbrook tried to determine the best role for Bright this season, he asked Bright where he would feel comfortable playing.

“Anywhere,” Bright responded.

So they started talking about Bright playing outfield, something he had never done in a game. But 20 games into this season, Bright may have found a home as an outfielder. He has played in 14 games, with 12 starts — one at second base, nine in right field and two in left field.

Entering tonight’s game against The Citadel at Riley Park — on Bright’s 20th birthday — he is batting .279, with five runs batted-in and just four strikeouts in 43 at-bats. He has yet to make a fielding error.

Last season, Bright played in 32 of 69 games, with 22 starts. He hit .228 and had nine RBIs and 19 strikeouts in 79 at-bats. He started 10 of the first 17 games, seven at shortstop, as Pankake struggled. But from mid-March to mid-April, he didn’t start at all, and then got 12 starts as a designated hitter after that. He played in just one of USC’s seven College World Series games.

He enjoyed his share of highlights in 2012, especially an 11th-inning RBI single against Clemson in Riley Park, which put USC up 3-1 in a game it won 3-2 in 11. But the season was largely a humbling experience for Bright, who hit .495 and .485 in his last two years at Wando.

“I wasn’t really used to not playing,” he said. “It was tough, but I appreciated the opportunities late in the year to be able to DH. It was an up-and-down year, but I’d say it was a great year overall.”

It let him know what to work on during the summer with the Coastal Plain League’s Florence Red Wolves. His goal for the summer was simple: strike out less. Though he hit just .196, he had as many strikeouts as walks during his 92 at-bats — 10. Because college baseball’s bats are now more comparable to the wooden bats used in those summer leagues, the experience translates better for players as they return to their college teams.

While Bright began this year with a better two-strike hitting approach, his willingness to play anywhere was not new. He told coach Ray Tanner before last season that he would do it. Bright knew versatility could only help. But Bright’s first practice time in the outfield didn’t come until last fall’s intra-squad scrimmages, when he played a couple innings there. His serious transition began in earnest after his conversation with Holbrook, just prior to this season.

USC lost center fielder Evan Marzilli and right fielder Adam Matthews after last season. Tanner English moved from left to center, his natural spot. Bright competed in the preseason with junior college transfer Graham Saiko for the left field job, but Saiko got it. TJ Costen won right field.

But Costen is hitting just .234, and Holbrook has given Bright chances to prove himself a better option. On Friday, Bright started in right for USC’s Southeastern Conference opener at Missouri. Then Saiko hurt his left wrist diving for a ball, so Bright moved to left for the rest of the series. Saiko’s injury is not serious, and English is working back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for five straight games before the Missouri trip. So Bright’s best chance to play regularly likely will come by producing more than Costen in right.

Bright’s biggest adjustment to outfield? Reading the spin of line drives and fly balls off the bat. He worked on it while shagging balls during batting practice, and asked English for tips. English said excelling in the outfield requires patience, to not break as soon as the ball leaves the bat. Instead, you must read the trajectory, then determine the best angle of pursuit and believe that you’re fast enough to chase the ball down even after waiting to see where it flies.

“My first couple days out there, that was the biggest thing — just trust yourself,” Bright said. “It’s a new position, but you have the instincts. You just don’t know it. I’ve really adjusted better than I thought. It’s tough coming in playing a position that I never have in my lifetime. I’ve enjoyed it, honestly. I feel comfortable out there.”