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January 29, 2013
A year ago, South Carolina rolled out one of the fastest outfields in the country with freshman Tanner English in left, junior Evan Marzilli in center and senior Adam Matthews in right.
Yet, as speedy as that starting trio was, the Gamecocks might be even faster in 2013.
English, sophomore TJ Costen and newcomer Graham Saiko won't lack for speed, and when football players Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson are added into the mix, the quickness on display throughout the 56-game regular season could signify a new standard in Columbia during the third go-around with the toned-down bats.
With consecutive appearances in the national championship series - and a pair of national titles on their resume - over the past three seasons, few programs were able to make the switch from relying on power to speed better than the Gamecocks.
Since 2009, USC's total number of single-season home runs has fallen from 109 to 97 (2010) to 46 (2011) to 42 (2012). Those numbers reflect the national trend.
With the start of the 2013 season less than three weeks away, first-year coach Chad Holbrook doesn't intend to mess with a proven formula.
In short, speed is still king.
"One of the things about our program is we've always been aggressive," Holbrook recently said. "Coach (Ray) Tanner was an aggressive coach and I think I'm an aggressive coach. We have some guys that can run. From Tanner English to TJ Costen to Joey Pankake to Max Schrock to Ahmad Christian to Shon Carson, we have some guys that can really run."
However, even though homers have vanished faster than Lance Armstrong's sponsors, stolen bases haven't increased for USC. If anything, they've tumbled.
In 2009, the Gamecocks had 45 stolen bases. The following year, they had 53. In the first two seasons with the new BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats, the Gamecocks have 41 and 44 stolen bases, respectively.
Tanner preferred moving runners along the base paths through sacrificing. USC sacrificed 68 times in 2012, one fewer time than 2011. The number of sacrifice hits in 2009? 33.
Could USC seek to become more of a running team in 2013 and increasingly rely upon the stolen base? Perhaps.
Either way, Holbrook intends to gain the maximum advantage from one of USC's biggest assets.
"I wouldn't be a very good coach if I didn't try to utilize their strengths," Holbrook said. "So, I think you're going to see some guys try to swipe bases. It's easy for me to say in January that we're going to run more and then get out there in the course of a game and get cold feet. One thing I'm going to try to do is utilize the strengths some of our kids have.
"We're blessed to have some foot speed. I intend to give them a green light and let them run."
English's productive freshman season, his anticipated move to center this year following the departure of Marzilli and his efforts to become a switch-hitter are well documented.
Costen, less so. The Virginia Beach, Va., product appeared in 38 games last season with 10 starts, seven in left field and two at second base. He batted .275 (14-for-51) with one homer and two RBIs.
Right now, Costen is targeted by the USC coaching staff as the successor to Matthews in right field. But plenty of hard work and refinement remains until Costen, who oozes raw ability, blossoms into an elite player, Holbrook maintained.
"TJ is one of our better athletes. He can run as fast as Tanner English and hit them as far as Christian Walker," Holbrook said. "But we have to keep polishing him up. He's a little bit of a wild card and he's unpredictable at times. But he's an awesome talent. If we can corral him a little bit and help him stay within the parameters of the game, he can have a really good year for us."
Costen led USC in homers during fall practice and continued to work on stealing bases. Like English, he must shrink his number of strikeouts. Costen fanned 19 times in 51 at-bats last season.
"We have to continue working on cutting down his strikeouts," Holbrook said. "That's one of the things you'll see from our team this year. If we're having a really good year, it will because our fast guys are making contact and putting the ball on the ground and striking out fewer times than what they've done. We have to improve that.
"If our fast guys are making contact, we can put a lot of pressure on the opposition because of how they can run. A couple of these guys can score from first on a hit. They can run that well. We need to make sure we hit the ball on the ground, use the bunt game and be patient and confident enough to take a walk because that will be valuable as well."
In order to keep their starting spots, Costen and Saiko will need to fend off Christian, a two-sport standout who collected three hits last weekend in the initial scrimmage of preseason camp.
Christian could or could not start on Opening Day, but he also may break through at some point this season after being one of the last roster cuts a year ago, a decision Holbrook still regrets.
"We saw a lot last year when he was with us in January," Holbrook said. "He hit a home run off Matt Price and handled our pitchers pretty well. Coach Tanner and I often talked last year that our biggest mistake was not keeping him on our team. I'm not going to make that mistake again. He's too talented a kid.
"He's not just a football player trying to play baseball. Ahmad can play second base, he can play third base, he can play any of the outfield positions. He is very versatile. He can run. He has energy and bounce. Our players like him. He works hard. He has some catching up to do, but it would not surprise me if come April 15 he was in the starting lineup. It wouldn't shock me at all."
If you have any questions about this feature or wish to discuss it, please visit The Insiders Forum, Gamecock Central's members-only message board for Gamecock fans.
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