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January 25, 2013

English learns language of switch-hitting

On the plane ride home from Omaha after South Carolina's runner-up finish in the College World Series, Chad Holbrook asked outfielder Tanner English to sit next to him.

As they talked, Holbrook's message to his young player was unmistakable: You have to cut down the number of strikeouts in 2013.

English, widely regarded as the fastest player on the team, possesses speed to burn. But too often last season, he trudged slowly back to the dugout with his bat in tow after fanning.

Over the course of 69 games, he did that 71 times, an average of more than one per game. But he did hit .298 with 74 hits, although his on-base percentage was just .341, too low for somebody expected to hit at the top of the order.

"Obviously, I did strike out too much," English conceded on Friday. "I was just overanxious and trying to do too much with the baseball. This past fall, I did a much better job on slowing everything down and not trying to swing so hard and trying to hit doubles into the gap. I'm at the point now where I'm happy with the ground ball to the second-base hole. That's how I have to play."

Holbrook devised a plan to help English cut down on his strikeouts: Switch-hitting and perhaps more bunting. However, Holbrook doesn't expect everything to go smoothly for the sophomore from Murrells Inlet early in the season.

"It's no easy task (to switch-hit)," Holbrook said Friday during his season-opening press conference at Carolina Stadium. "On the plane ride home last year from Omaha, I let Tanner sit beside me. I told him I got tired watching him strike out. Seventy-one times for a kid with that athleticism and that type of ability was too much. I thought switch-hitting was something that would help him, not only immediately, but down the road."

When fall camp got underway, English began experimenting with switch-hitting and experienced enough success to convince Holbrook that it had been the right decision to try English batting from both sides.

Batting from the left side will put English about four feet closer to first base, making it very difficult to throw him out on a high chopper or well-placed bunt anywhere in the infield.

"After giving it some thought and watching him perform this fall, I don't think there is any doubt that it's the right move for him and the right move for our team," Holbrook said. "He doesn't have to be a great hitter left-handed to cause havoc, as fast as he is.

"If he can just move the ball a little more consistently and hit the ball on the ground some, he's going to increase his on-base percentage and increase his opportunities to steal bases, which is what we want him to do."

English is excited about the possible positive impact switch-hitting will have on his batting numbers. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a staggering 5-to-1 in 2012, and he knows improvement is demanded.

"When I'm making contact and putting the ball in play, that puts more pressure on the defense because I have about two extra steps down the line," English said. "By the end of the (2012) season, one of the reasons I was able to hit close to .300 was because I put pressure on defenses and beat out a lot of infield ground balls."

By this point, Holbrook says the process of turning English into a switch-hitter has progressed beyond the experimentation phase. In short, there's no turning back.

"I don't know if you call it an experiment. It's not an experiment. It's something he's going to have to stick with," Holbrook said. "There's going to be some up and downs. He's going to have some bad at-bats because it is new. It's difficult. It's not easy hitting a baseball even when you've hit from one side your whole life. He's picking up something totally new. Obviously, it's a challenge for him. But he's gotten more and more comfortable."

English contended that he's pleased where he stands right now in his quest to become a switch-hitter.

"I've messed around with it before, but hadn't really done it seriously," English said. "Coach Holbrook gave me the opportunity to do it this fall. He liked what he saw. I felt comfortable and had a blast. I stuck with it and it's going pretty well so far.

"Surprisingly, the first day I went over there, I noticed I was seeing the ball better. That's why in the fall I didn't struggle as much with the off-speed (pitches) and curveballs and sliders. I was able to see the ball, trust my hands and let everything else fall into place."

English rarely bunted in high school, so when he arrived at USC in the fall of 2011 he had to be taught the art. If the St. James High School graduate starts slowly at the plate, Holbrook has the solution to get him on track - bunt more.

"If he struggles too much, we're going to make him bunt," Holbrook proclaimed. "Trying to throw Tanner English out when he's bunting left-handed is a tall order, considering how fast he is."

Mastering the art of bunting has probably been more difficult than switch-hitting, English said.

"Bunting is actually pretty tough. You'd be surprised," English said. "It's scary at first because you think you're going to get hit all the time."

In addition to learning how to switch-hit, English is getting adjusted to playing center field, as he takes over the spot from Evan Marzilli. English started 62 games in left field last season, but center is a more natural fit with his blazing speed.

"In high school and travel ball, I always played center field," English said. "So, it's good to get back there."

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