COLUMBIA — Lots of things went wrong in a month-long baseball slump that might cost once-mighty South Carolina a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time this century.
Critical things went right this weekend to allow the Gamecocks to beat the odds, delay panic and seize an SEC series from No. 5 Vanderbilt.
Worried about a vulnerable team that was No. 75 on the Ratings Percentage Index List on Friday?
There is hope in a clutch pitching and timely hitting formula that worked in Saturday’s 3-2 victory at Carolina Stadium. South Carolina, 25-16 and 8-10 in the SEC, has winnable series against Tennessee and Auburn coming up.
Not bad, considering the Vanderbilt visit started with a 12-0 shellacking Thursday night.
Concerned about the emotional state of emotional Chad Holbrook, in his third season as a head coach after taking over for two-time national championship winner Ray Tanner?
“I’m a lucky guy,” Holbrook said Saturday. “People say, ‘Is this the hardest thing you’ve ever been through?’ I had to tell my 2-year-old kid he had cancer. This is a piece of cake. OK? And I mean that. I work for a great university, great people. (Athletic Director) Ray Tanner, (Chief Operating Officer) Kevin O’Connell, (South Carolina) President (Harris) Pastides, they are the best. I get to wrap myself around my players and my coaches; when I go home, I wrap myself around my family.”
To be clear, Holbrook didn’t volunteer the baseball comparison to his 12-year-old son Reece, who is now cancer-free. It came during a long answer after I asked him what he has learned about being a head coach during the last month.
Nutshell answer: “To wrap myself around my players and my coaches and to just try to continue to get better each and every day.”
Holbrook’s coping methods became necessary as the Gamecocks dropped consecutive SEC series to Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi State and Florida (outscored 38-10 in Gainesville last week). This while losing extra-inning, mid-week games to the likes of Winthrop, Coastal Carolina and Presbyterian.
Clawing into the Coral Gables regional as a bubble team isn’t what Gamecock fans had in mind when South Carolina was ranked No. 13 in Baseball America’s preseason poll.
“I realize that my players have feelings too, and they hear a lot,” Holbrook said during his response. “I have to make sure we keep everything within the walls of this locker room and this stadium and stay focused on what we can control and do the best we can do, and that’s been my message to them.”
There is no reason to be over-confident.
Series against No. 1 Texas A&M and No. 2 LSU remain on the schedule.
Injuries are adding up. Sophomore pitcher Wil Crowe, the best Major League prospect on the team, is out for the season. Shortstop Marcus Mooney is out three or four more weeks with a hamstring pull. Outfielder Connor Bright (Wando High School) missed Saturday’s game with a sore thumb. That meant having to start freshman Clark Scolamiero and his .059 batting average in left field Saturday.
Errors (26 for South Carolina in SEC games, nine for opponents) add up.
And Holbrook can learn to lose some of the emotion he wears on his garnet pullover jacket. Instead of talking about “disheartening” setbacks and “fragile” team status, maybe he should simply point out that all teams go through slumps, and that some slumps are longer than others.
Because that “fragile” stuff is contagious. It infects the clubhouse and attaches itself to others. For instance, SEC Network broadcaster Dave Neal used “fragile” twice in his postgame wrap-up of Friday night’s South Carolina victory.
But two victories in a row over Vanderbilt goes a long way toward healing.
“You learn a lot about a leader, or a coach, or a team, or some players when things aren’t necessarily going so well,” Holbrook said. “You have to strap it back on and pull yourself together, get it going and play the right way and try to pull yourself off the mat. I hope that this is an indication that we have.”
South Carolina has a chance to bounce back, if the formula keeps working and Holbrook keeps learning.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff