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April 19, 2011

Bradley Jr. Hoping That Hits Keep Falling

The number sits there, almost mockingly standing out. A .278 batting average isn't bad, but when it's beside the name of Jackie Bradley Jr., it's either a typo or it needs an asterisk to explain some extenuating circumstance.

No circumstance. No mistake. Bradley Jr., a career .358 hitter that has been a stalwart at the No. 3 spot in the order for the past two years and is a certain first-round draft pick in June, is batting .278.

"He's having a hard time, there's no doubt about it," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said after a 6-4 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday, when Bradley Jr. went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. "He's going to battle and he's going to fight his way out. It happens. It happens in baseball. When he squares one up, he doesn't get much to show for it, it seems.

"He'll be fine. He's the reason we've won a lot of games the last two or three years, so he'll fight his way out."

Bradley Jr.'s goal before the season was to simply play 2011 injury-free, after his first two seasons had him missing time with various ding-ups. He almost got through it, but wrenched his back lifting weights and had to miss a game. Overall, though, he's been a staple in the lineup, playing center and hitting third.

But his average hasn't been there. His power numbers are still very respectable - six home runs, 25 RBIs - but his strikeouts (23) are more than his walks (20) and he's often far behind in the count, backing him into a corner from the start.

It got to a point on Saturday that after the first two batters of the seventh inning reached, Tanner considered asking Bradley Jr. to bunt. In a two-run game and the entire team not hitting the ball well, the issue needed to be forced. Any worry of asking a No. 3 hitter to bunt - could be termed an insult - would have to be shelved.

Tanner didn't ask, sending Bradley Jr. to the plate hoping for the best. "Bunting crossed my mind, but I'd probably do the same thing again," he said.

Bradley Jr. struck out on three pitches. Each runner stayed exactly where he was as Christian Walker also struck out and Adrian Morales lined out to left.

As the calendar turned to Sunday and the rubber game beckoned, Tanner had already said he wouldn't consider dropping Bradley Jr. in the order. He didn't - he elevated him instead.

"I talked with Jackie a little bit this morning, about getting him in a different environment," Tanner said on Sunday. "Slumps are hard. Trying a little bit to turn back the clock, when he was a freshman, a leadoff guy, just change it up."

Bradley Jr. batted leadoff, socked the second pitch he saw for a single, and also hit an RBI single in the crucial seventh inning. In his other at-bats, he worked full counts and wasn't overpowered early.

Signs of life, and hopefully signs of a re-emerging of the team's best pure hitter. The Gamecocks will need it as they try to hold onto their one-game lead in the SEC standings through the final 15 conference games.

Bradley Jr. may still be in the leadoff spot tonight at College of Charleston, or drop to his customary third. Either way, he's hoping to keep his average rising. The circumstances seem to be good - Bradley Jr. belted a three-run homer and a single, plus walking twice, in a 24-4 win over College of Charleston on March 22, and today is his 21st birthday.

"My approach was nothing like a leadoff," Bradley Jr. said on Sunday. "I'm trying to be aggressive. Not trying to take as many pitches. I'm trying to be aggressive so I can fight my way through this. I feel like I'm on it. Hopefully things come around for me."

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