By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
Fueled by its awesome power, South Carolina got off to a 14-3 start this season by relying on the long ball, ranking among the nation’s leaders in home runs and slugging percentage.
But once SEC play began and the Gamecocks started facing elite pitching, that plan didn’t work. Twelve games into conference play, they are last in nearly every offensive category — runs, hits, walks, on-base percentage and batting average. Though they lead the SEC in home runs with 51, they are second in strikeouts, leading to a .189 league average and four straight series losses.
After starting 3-9 in the SEC, it is time for a different offensive approach.
On Tuesday, the Gamecocks went back to playing “old-school baseball” in a 5-4 win over Charlotte.
“We tried hit-and-runs, we tried steals, we tried safety squeezes, we hit homers. We have to have a lot of different ways to score runs,” head coach Mark Kingston said. “That’s part of the evolution of a team within a season. If that’s how we have to try to win games, that’s how we will try to win games.”
Starting Thursday with a three-game series at Florida, the Gamecocks are de-emphasizing power and looking to play a more traditional brand of baseball focused on timely hitting and manufacturing runs.
“We started 14-3 with that style of baseball and then we got into the SEC and you don’t score as much with that style of play and we’ve had to learn some of that the hard way,” Kingston said. “At the end of the day, we are not scoring enough. We don’t have five All-SEC performers right now in our lineup so it’s become very clear that we have to find other ways to manufacture runs. I think our team knows that, they are on board with it.”
Though the Gamecocks scored just five runs on seven hits against Charlotte, they walked six times and had just three strikeouts, a season-low. They had a sacrifice bunt, a sac-fly and attempted three stolen bases.
“I have told them to be prepared to scrap, be prepared to play old-school baseball and when we can drive the ball out of the ballpark we will. When we have to do other things, we have to try other things,” Kingston said. “… We can’t just sit back and wait for that home run.”
Outfielder Andrew Eyster, who returned from injury to collect two hits, including a home run, against Charlotte, said the Gamecocks have re-focused their offensive philosophy.
“We were scoring a lot of runs on home runs and doubles, and as much as we would have liked to continue that pattern, it doesn’t always work that way,” he said. “It is something we have had to relearn and refocus on so we are not just a one-sided offense. It’s definitely important to be good at all that kind of stuff — bunts, hit-and-runs and everything on the base paths — and not just be able to hit the ball hard.”
After 12 league games, South Carolina is sixth in the SEC East and 13th overall. At 3-9, it must win 12 of its remaining 18 games to reach .500, which is considered the minimum for making the NCAA Tournament in a league where nine or more teams could make the postseason.
While he knows winning the Florida series is critical, Kingston doesn’t like using the word “pressure,” preferring to keep his team loose and relaxed.
“I want the guys to enjoy playing. I don’t want them to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders every time we play a game,” he said. “I want them be disciplined, I want them to play the game the right way and live up to expectations, but I don’t want them to feel pressure, because when you feel pressure, you get tight and when you get tight you don’t play well.
“So we’ll just go down there to win the first game, do the best we can and regardless of that result, we’ll do the next. If you start to let all that heaviness come onto you, then the pressure gets a lot of worse. We can’t afford to look at our record and figure out standings right now. We just need to keep improving ourselves and figure how to play better baseball and hope that the tide turns much like it did last year.”
NOTES: Kingston has once again shaken up his weekend rotation, moving staff ace Reid Morgan to Game 1, which will be played on Thursday night this week. Cam Tringali, who has been one of the team’s most reliable relievers, will make his second straight start on Friday. The Game 3 is once again TBA … South Carolina likely won’t get former Friday night starter Carmen Mlodzinski, who suffered a broken foot, back until the Kentucky series on May 10. When he does return, Kingston said he will likely start in the bullpen. “He won’t be a guy who can give you 100 pitches right out of the gate,” he said. “He will be used strategically, maybe as a middle relief guy, maybe as a setup guy. We will have to see how he feels and how his command is.”