USC set to make another CWS run

Any other season, and maybe it would just be a bad bug. Chad Holbrook couldn't take that chance.

This spring has been a medical nightmare for South Carolina's baseball team. Injuries juggled Holbrook's lineup. Freshmen were forced into critical roles. So when the Gamecocks coach started feeling sick over the weekend, he didn't risk more health issues before his team opened its NCAA tournament run.

Holbrook quarantined himself.

"I stayed away. They've probably been the happiest team," Holbrook joked. "They got to have practice (Sunday) without me. They probably had more fun than they had all year. I'm just trying to stay away from them as much as I can. "

Holbrook's illness isn't serious. He got an IV laced with dextrose and returned to practice Monday. Still, the irony wasn't lost on anyone who's followed South Carolina baseball in 2014.

Only one player - junior first baseman Kyle Martin - has started all 58 games this spring. Five of the nine players in South Carolina's opening day lineup started fewer than 50 games. In most cases, the injuries have piled up.

Right fielder Connor Bright was hospitalized with an illness earlier this season, then missed time with a hyper-extended elbow. Second baseman Max Schrock has persevered through back and ankle injuries. A back injury also ended outfielder Elliott Caldwell's season in late April.

The list goes on, each week another struggle. Finally, things have turned.

South Carolina will have its healthiest lineup in months when it hosts the NCAA Columbia Regional this weekend. Holbrook said Bright and Schrock are expected to be available. Both players would jolt a lineup that has been inconsistent - at best - recently.

"I hope so," junior catcher Grayson Greiner said. "That's the lineup we had at the beginning of the year. To have those two guys back would be huge for our lineup. Pat (Harrington) and Gene (Cone) have played really, really well since they've been in there, so I don't really know what coach Holbrook is going to put on the field."

For Holbrook, that's the next challenge.

Through all the adversity this season, South Carolina stayed on course. The Gamecocks were in the hunt for one of the top-eight national seeds before bowing out of the SEC tournament last week with two quick losses in Hoover, Ala. Still, with a 42-16 record, South Carolina has the second-most wins in college baseball's toughest league.

Holbrook, who has earned praise nationally for guiding South Carolina through the adversity, said he hasn't given much thought to the potential pitfalls of this spring. He's too focused on how to prepare his team for a run at the College World Series. Nothing will be more important than implementing now-healthy starters to a group that earned the program's fifth straight berth as a regional host.

"I hope it means something for the morale of our team," Holbrook said. "With that being said, I don't know who I'll take out. I've gotten kind of comfortable with Gene Cone and Patrick Harrington. They've done some nice things for us. Gene Cone and Patrick Harrington are why we're sitting here talking about hosting a regional, to be honest with you."

Cone has batted .217 in his rookie season, but his 18 RBIs in 26 starts have been invaluable. Harrington, meanwhile, has nine RBIs in 16 starts. Both have had their moments, delivering when South Carolina has needed a clutch play.

Neither are as prepared or developed as the players they replaced.

When Bright and Schrock were in the lineup, South Carolina almost looked unbeatable. The Gamecocks were undefeated through the nonconference season and ranked No. 1 nationally in March. Holbrook hopes they can return to that level of play.

"I still don't necessarily believe we've played our best baseball yet," Holbrook said. "Hopefully we can play our best baseball as we go forward. We're going to have to be healthy to play our best. I don't think our team can win a national championship, or compete for one, without a healthy team."