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February 21, 2012

USC eyeing improvement this weekend



The first two games went down to the wire. The final was a rout.

The common theme? South Carolina won all three contests over VMI on the opening weekend of the 2012 college baseball season.

But the USC coaches and players are far from satisfied, and they know they must improve in most areas against a very good Elon team coming to Columbia this weekend for a three-game series, starting at 3 p.m. on Friday at Carolina Stadium.

USC edged VMI 2-1 and 3-2 in the first two games of the opening series before cruising to a 13-1 win in the finale.

"The games were a little tighter than what we hoped for," associate head coach Chad Holbrook said Monday on 107.5 The Game. "We expected the games to be competitive with the level of pitchers they had out front in the first two games. We had heard good things about them. Everything we heard certainly rang true. They were very good pitchers. They had good arms, changed speeds and threw strikes. It was a good opening-weekend test for us."

Fortunately, USC was able to match VMI's mound prowess. Eleven USC pitchers - four of whom were freshmen - allowed four runs and 11 hits in three games, posting a staff ERA of 1.33 for the three games. All four runs by the Keydets were earned.

Could the USC coaches have asked for anything more from their hurlers?

"No, no," Holbrook replied. "We want our pitching staff to be the backbone of our team. If you look at the history of teams going to the College World Series, they are always in the Top 20 in ERA and tops in the country in pitching as far as the numbers go. We want how we pitch to be the backbone of our team."

However, the infield defense was spotty at times and USC left 24 runners on base in the three games, including nine in Game 2, when they bounced into two double plays and stranded three runners in scoring position.

"We have to get a lot better," Holbrook said. "Are we pleased with how we played? Well, we're pleased we won three games. I wouldn't necessarily say we're pleased with how we played. Our pitchers threw terrific and that was one of the neat things to see. Some of our young guys pitched very well."

Batting from the leadoff position, Evan Marzilli led the offensive attack with a team-high six hits in 12 at-bats (.500) and scored three runs.

"From a hitter's standpoint, we did some good things," Holbrook said. "Evan Marzilli had a good weekend. Tanner English (.273, 3-for-11) did OK. LB Dantzler (.364, home run) swung the bat OK. Christian Walker (.364) had some hits. So, we did some things, but we just didn't bunch them together and have a big inning here or there."

USC is looking for English to bunt more for base hits and take a walk now and then in order to take full advantage of his speed, Holbrook said. English didn't draw a walk in the first three games.

After collecting 19 hits in the first two games (9 in Game 1 and 10 in Game 2), USC erupted for 16 hits in the final contest, six for extra bases, including homers by Dantzler and TJ Costen.

"The third game, we relaxed and swung the bats like we're capable of swinging the bats," Holbrook said. "But we certainly have a long ways to go. We have to get a lot better. We have a very talented team offensively. We think we can swing the bats better. Our table-setters have to do a better job of working the count and getting on base.

"We have to get lead-off hitters on base, whether we're leading off the first or one of the middle innings. This past weekend, we couldn't get anybody on base with nobody out and put some pressure on the defense. Our plate approaches have to improve a little bit."

USC walked eight times and struck out 12 times in the three games, the reverse of what Gamecock coaches are looking for.

"We were on the wrong side of that ratio on the weekend," Holbrook said.

Three true freshmen hurlers (Evan Beal, Jordan Montgomery and Joel Seddon) combined to yield no runs on one hit in 2 1-3 innings pitched. Redshirt freshman Drake Thomason also made his Gamecock debut.

USC enjoyed a successful weekend on the mound despite four experienced pitchers not taking the mound - left-hander Nolan Belcher, left-hander Adam Westmoreland, left-hander Logan Munson and right-hander Patrick Sullivan.

"We certainly have some depth and we have a number of guys who threw the ball extremely well," Holbrook said. "It was neat to see some of the young guy throw the ball well this weekend. Evan Beal (one strikeout in one inning) threw terrific. It was good to see Jordan Montgomery get out there. Drake Thomason is coming off elbow surgery and he threw OK as well. A lot of good things happened for us on the mound this weekend."

Although it was just three games, catchers Grayson Greiner (.400, double) and Dante Rosenberg (2-for-4, two doubles, game-winning RBI in Game 2) proved that USC should excel behind the plate this season.

As a true freshman, Grayson was wearing the garnet and black for the first time, while Rosenberg took the field for the first time in a year after he missed most of 2011 with a serious back injury.

"Dante and Grayson are special players," Holbrook said. "We don't have a one and two at catcher. We have two number-one catchers and they're both going to catch a lot. We think the world of Grayson and he has an incredible future here."

Holbrook acknowledged infield defense must improve before the start of conference play in mid-March. USC was charged with two errors on the weekend, both by freshmen (Joey Pankake, Costen). However, the Gamecocks could have been charged with an error on a couple of occasions and overcame a few mental lapses.

Second base looms as a major question mark heading into the second weekend of action against Elon. Then again, three players without significant experience at the major college level are trying to replace Scott Wingo, one of the best defensive players in school history.

"The infielders were OK, but they didn't blow our socks off by any stretch of the imagination," Holbrook said. "We weren't anxious or nervous. We had a freshman shortstop out there. He did make an error, but he also responded and made some plays for us. We didn't get very comfortable at second in the first two games. We thought Connor Bright had a nice game at second base in game three. We have a lot of work to do there."

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D. McCallum


South Carolina NEWS

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