COLUMBIA — Even in the midst of a resurgent baseball season that’s returned South Carolina to the national elite, there’s one question that continues to vex Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook.
How does he get freshman T.J. Hopkins of Summerville into the lineup?
“It kills me when I don’t put him in there, it really does,” Holbrook said. “When I’m handing in the lineup and there’s no T.J. Hopkins in there, it hurts. It hurts me. Because he can help us win in more ways than just his defense or his offense. He can help you win in a lot of different ways. But it’s hard.”
On one hand, there are the skills the former Summerville High School star brings to the field, evident in two games last week where he went a combined 7-for-10 from the plate with five runs scored, five runs batted in, and four stolen bases. On the other, there’s a lineup featuring three regular outfielders batting .329 or better, and the need to play leading home run hitter John Jones either at catcher or designated hitter.
For Holbrook, it’s become a balance. Hopkins usually starts in the outfield when Jones is behind the plate, allowing USC to move outfielder Alex Destino to DH. Regardless, either Hopkins or another promising freshman, catcher Chris Cullen, is forced to watch the game from the dugout.
Destino’s development as an outfielder has made it tougher for Hopkins to get on the field. The sophomore was envisioned as a first baseman until the progression of freshman L.T. Tolbert led coaches to move Destino and his .354 batting average to the outfield. Holbrook joked to Destino that he needed to take Hopkins to dinner after the season — to make up for the roughly 100 at-bats he’s stolen from him.
“I got a kick out of that,” Destino said. “But that kid, every time he comes into the game, it seems he’s at least getting a hit. When I’m at the plate and he’s running, I just don’t swing and watch him run. He’s putting himself in position for me where I can help the team, and I appreciate that so much.”
That was certainly the case in Sunday’s series finale against Missouri. Hopkins, hitting second behind red-hot leadoff hitter Gene Cone, connected for three hits that knocked in as many RBI, and scored twice on Destino singles. It was Hopkins’ seventh multi-hit game of the season, and second in a row on the heels of a 4-for-5 performance four days earlier at Furman.
“I try to go out there and play hard every time my name gets called,” Hopkins said. “I really don’t put any pressure on myself.”
Hopkins had a rough fall camp in which Holbrook estimated he struck out in nearly half his at-bats, and cutting down on the Ks has been a priority for the outfielder ever since. His batting average is up to .352 in 19 starts for the sixth-ranked Gamecocks (33-8, 14-4 SEC), who host No. 1 Florida in a three-game set opening Friday at 7 p.m.
“I’ll tell you this about T.J. — when he’s not playing, he’s the biggest cheerleader we’ve got in the dugout,” Holbrook said. “His attitude is great. Some of his teammates could probably learn from him. Not that we have anybody who’s sour, but we have kids who want to play, some that can’t get in there. But T.J. wants to win. I’m sure it’s difficult for him, but he understands, and he knows the situation that we’re in. He gets it.”
He does. “When I’m in the lineup or I’m not in the lineup, I’m just happy we win,” Hopkins said. Even so, few players present the speed Hopkins uses to pressure opposing defenses, in addition to his athleticism in the outfield. “He’s going to be a very, very high draft pick in a couple of years,” Holbrook said. All of which leaves the USC head coach looking for more way to get Hopkins in the game.
“He’s making it hard on me,” Holbrook said. “I’ve got to get creative. I’ve got to keep trying to find ways to not have him on the bench, because he’s too talented.”