USC wants freshman Destino swinging free and easy

South Carolina freshman Alex Destino had four hits, including a two-run homer, in last weekend’s three-game series against the College of Charleston at Carolina Stadium. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Its official name is Williams Street, but the road running behind the right-field wall at Carolina Stadium is better known to South Carolina baseball fans by its honorary designation, Ray Tanner Way. And Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook wants Alex Destino to view it as something else.

A target.

“I keep telling him to hit them over that street,” Holbrook said. “He gets a kick out of that. He came in trying to hit the ball to left field. I was like, ‘Uh-uh. That street over there, it’s a short porch.’ We want that big boy swinging for that fence.”

He certainly did that last weekend against College of Charleston, blasting a two-run shot over the fence in right to propel the Gamecocks to a victory in the rubber game of the series. The freshman finished with four hits in the three-game set, and showed hints of why Baseball America thought enough of the Weaverville, N.C., native to name him third-team preseason All-America before he had ever played a game at the college level.

Of course, accolades like that are nothing new for Destino, who hit cleanup in his first two games in a South Carolina uniform. A Louisville Slugger High School All-American, a consensus top-100 national recruit, a standout on the under-18 U.S. national team — the 6-2, 215-pound designated hitter has brought more to Columbia than just a swing that some have compared to that of former Gamecocks great and current major leaguer Christian Walker.

“He’s a great hitter. He’s a big boy. And if he can get the bat to the ball, then the ball’s going to go a long way,” said USC senior first baseman Kyle Martin. “He’s going to turn out to be pretty good. He’s going to be a big powerhouse for us this year.”

South Carolina could certainly use one, given that Grayson Greiner and his team-leading eight homers from a year ago are now in the Detroit Tigers system. From the beginning of preseason practice, Holbrook knew it would be difficult to keep Destino out of the lineup. He hit .529 and 15 homers as a high school senior, and carried to USC expectations as large as his bat.

“There’s big expectations, and playing at this university — it doesn’t matter what position or player you are, you have a lot to live up to,” Destino said. “I’m just trying to do my part, to keep my teammates behind me, and to bring the fans what they want, and that’s success here. I’m just trying my hardest to do that with the team.”

Even so, being in the lineup on opening day “was kind of nuts, in a way,” he said. After hitting into a double play in his second at-bat in the finale against Charleston, he realized he was getting down on himself — understandable for a player whose on-base percentage as a high school senior was .592. It took the intervention of seniors Martin and Patrick Harrington, among the last links to USC’s national championship teams, to restore some perspective.

“They kind of bring the success. They push,” Destino said. “What they put on us younger kids who are getting out there and playing in front of thousands of fans — all of us come from high schools where we were playing in front of 150 people if we were packing the place out. They keep us calm and settled, and coach Holbrook does a great job of that as well. I’m just enjoying it.”

Calm and settled is just how Holbrook wants to see Destino. The Charleston series marked the first time he was jammed inside by quality college pitchers, and Holbrook wants Destino to work on moving off the plate and extending his arms in his swing. But there’s no pressure from the head coach, who told Destino that he’ll get his 200 at-bats this season, and he’s not going to get pulled out of games. After all, there’s enough pressure coming from everywhere else.

“I think it’s a little bit unfair from a pressure standpoint,” said Holbrook, whose 13th-ranked Gamecocks (3-1) play a three-game set against Northeastern this weekend starting with a doubleheader Saturday. “I’m sure he’s trying to perform at a high level, because he’s heard all the things about being an All-American, and that kind of thing. That’s a little unfair. He has a chance to be, once he relaxes and just plays.”

Destino also was a standout pitcher in high school, going 10-1 with a 1.43 earned run average, but he’s unsure if or when he’ll be used on the mound at USC.

“I had good high school numbers, and college is a big difference,” he said. He’s also been practicing some in left field, in addition to his DH role in games. But for the time being, the focus seems to be relaxing and hitting that target out on Williams Street — which he did late in the third game against the Cougars, and then followed up with another base hit.

“When I put that one out, that got me on my feet and made me feel a lot better at the plate, and that kind of resulted in that next hit after that,” Destino said. “Just relaxed and enjoying being here.”