USC’s Cone had close calls on his way to record hitting streak

In addition to his 27-game hitting streak, Gene Cone leads South Carolina with a .377 batting average, and is hitting .457 in SEC games. (USC athletics)

COLUMBIA — It could have ended at Vanderbilt, where he twice needed singles in his final at-bat to keep it going. It could have ended against College of Charleston, where it was saved by a ninth-inning rally. And it threatened to flatline at Georgia, where Gene Cone belted a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the ninth to keep it alive.

Cone’s hitting streak reached a school-record 27 consecutive games Sunday, and in style with a 5-for-5 performance that capped a huge weekend for the South Carolina outfielder who on Monday was named SEC Player of the Week. But there were many other points where it could have ended — yet somehow, Cone kept it going.

“Oh, there was a lot,” said the Columbia native. “A lot. I’m very fortunate and very lucky to have made it even close to that far. But I’m still standing, somehow.”

The most dramatic of those moments came April 16 at Georgia, where Cone was hitless until his last at-bat — which generated a two-run, two-out homer, and a 22nd straight game with at least one hit. Seven times over the course of the streak, Cone was hitless entering his last at-bat of regulation. Seven times, the streak was extended one more game.

He needed a single in the top of the ninth just to get it started, slapping one through the right side for his lone hit on a 1-for-3 day at Clemson on March 6, the day the streak began. Four times in five games between March 29 and April 5, the streak came down to his last at-bats of regulation. He extended it with a single in the ninth against Charleston, in the seventh and ninth at Vanderbilt, and in the seventh against Coastal Carolina.

“I’ve been trying not to worry about it. It’s been tough,” said Cone, a junior whose grandmother lives in Jacksonboro, and who has relatives in Round O. “But every AB. One AB at a time.”

As Cone approached the USC record, there was no drama. He had three hits in the opener against Missouri to tie Greg Keatley’s single-season record from 1979, two more the next day to match Whit Merrifield’s combined-season record from 2009 and 2010, and unleashed a five-hit barrage on Sunday to claim the mark as his own.

“I’ve seen a few weekends like that. Not many,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook, who compared it to a three-game set at Mississippi State in 2011 where Christan Walker reached base 15 of 16 times. “That was about the last time I saw a weekend like Gene had.”

As he neared the USC record, Cone managed hits early in games that relieved some of the pressure of keeping the streak alive. But even so, “I completely believe that he thinks about it from at-bat to at-bat,” said Gamecocks outfielder Alex Destino. “I think it’s somewhere in his head.”

Over the course of the streak, Cone has raised his average to a team-best .377 overall and .457 in SEC games. He owns the longest active streak in Division I and is two games shy of the longest this season by a Division I player. He’s nine games behind the SEC record of 36, set by Andy Phillips of Alabama in 1999 and Ryan Flaherty of Vanderbilt over the 2006 and 2007 campaigns.

“I don’t think he’s going to think about it anymore,” said Holbrook, whose sixth-ranked Gamecocks (33-8, 14-4 SEC) host No. 1 Florida in a three-game set beginning Friday at 7 p.m.

“I don’t think he’ll give it a second thought going forward. Heck, I don’t think he’s given it that much thought anyway. But when you get close, we’re all human beings. His teammates are nudging him about it from time to time, so it’s not like he can flush it totally. But I’ll say this about him — even in that hitting streak, he would take at-bats and get walks. It wasn’t like he was getting outside of himself and getting outside of his approach and what he needs to do to help the team win.”

Cone, also named national player of the week by Collegiate Baseball magazine, said the ball from the record-breaking triple in the first inning Sunday will go to his mother Laurie, who also has his four home run balls. And Friday, he returns to the work of keeping the streak alive once again.

“Now that I guess the record is broken, or whatever it is, it probably will take a little bit of pressure off of me,” he said. “I don’t mind a little pressure.”