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February 19, 2013

Look Back, Look Ahead: Injury bug hits



Chad Holbrook experienced the emotional roller-coaster of a Division I baseball coach this past weekend.

Replacing a legend, Holbrook debuted as the new face of the South Carolina program as the Gamecocks escaped with a series win over under-rated Liberty at Carolina Stadium.

All three games were decided by a single run, and it took an astonishing rally by USC in the final two innings of the second game of the series to pull out one of the most unlikely wins in recent memory.

USC began a season with three straight one-run games for the first time in school history, as former Gamecocks assistant Jim Toman's talented club gave USC all it wanted and more over the course of the series.

"I feel fortunate we won two games," Holbrook said. "It wouldn't surprise me if (Liberty) won the Big South. They will be a tough team to handle. I was very impressed by their team."

Just like last season, solid pitching led the way for the Gamecocks as 10 hurlers combined for a 2.88 ERA, limiting Liberty to 20 hits and 13 runs in 25 innings with 26 strikeouts and 13 walks. The Flames batted .206 (20-for-97) in the series.

Six of Liberty's 13 runs came in one inning - the seventh inning of the second game of the series. Thus, it scored just seven runs in the other 24 innings, an average of one run every 3.4 innings. All three starters lasted at least 5 2-3 innings and allowed five or fewer hits.

"Our pitching is solid," Holbrook said.

USC prevailed over Liberty even though the Gamecocks were out-hit (20-17), had one-half the number of extra-base hits (6-3) and committed more than twice as many errors as the stubborn Flames. But USC hurlers issued fewer walks (17-13), a key difference in the series. Liberty pitchers gave out five free passes in the fateful bottom of the ninth in the second game of the series.

"If you go pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play and at-bat by at-bat, Liberty out-played us," Holbrook said. "They have a good team. That's an NCAA tournament team we played. They reminded me of that Coastal Carolina team we faced in the Super Regional in 2010. They're very physical offensively."

But the series win came at a cost. Reserve outfielder Ahmad Christian, who served as the designated hitter for two plate appearances in the series finale, aggravated his back injury and will be sidelined for about a month with a stress fracture in a vertebrae, Holbrook said on Monday.

"It was unfair of me to put Ahmad in that situation," Holbrook said on Monday on 107.5 The Game. "His back has been bothering him. We're having some doctors and specialists look at him to try to determine the extent of his injury and the direction we're going to go. He was terrific in the preseason. His back just started getting sore in the last couple of weeks.

"We have to handle this thing very carefully. I'm only going to put him back in there when he gets healthy. You don't mess with backs. Especially with an athlete and two-sport guy like he is. He is really going to help our team, but we have to get him healthy first."

Doctors will put Christian's back in a brace and let him rest, which they hope will facilitate healing. Holbrook hopes to get Christian back healthy in time for the initial SEC series at Missouri on March 15-17.

In addition, Tanner English broke his nose making a sensational diving catch on Sunday, but he looks to keep playing.

"He is going to play through it. He's a tough nut," Holbrook said on Monday on the weekly "Inside the Roost" program on 107.5 The Game. "He'll be fine. He won't miss any time, but he'll be in some discomfort."

By storming back from the seven-run deficit in the second game, the Gamecocks posted the largest comeback from a deficit since USC rallied from an eight-run deficit in a 15-12 win at Tennessee on May 9, 2009.

Holbrook said that his team appeared to relax and just play baseball after digging the seven-run hole, and it certainly didn't quit despite being down to its last six outs.

"When we got lost on the game, we played well," Holbrook said. "When we weren't lost in the game or we were pressing or we were just trying too hard, we didn't do so well. When it got to 7-0, we got lost in the game. We just said, 'Let's try to get back into this thing.' We forgot about ourselves and started playing to get back into it as a team.

"That was real encouraging to see. We didn't have any quit in us. We fought back and had some good at-bats. We had some help because they walked several guys. But that was a fun game to win. It said a lot about our team. That effort in the eighth and ninth innings of the first game (on Sunday). I was certainly proud of their fight and grit and the way they reacted to the deficit."

Heading into next week's series with Albany, Holbrook intends to tighten up the left side of USC's infield, which struggled defensively throughout the series against Liberty. Shortstop Joey Pankake and third baseman Chase Vergason each committed two errors in 25 innings.

Pankake displayed flashes of his skills, but mishandled the ball a number of times as well.

"Our defensive play on the left side of the infield was unacceptable this weekend," Holbrook said. "Joey is much better than how he played and so is Chase. I expect older and more mature guys to handle themselves in a mature fashion. Defensively, over the course of the weekend, they did not. But they're talented kids and they can play defense. We have to clean it up. I'm not worried about our defense."

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: LB Dantzler
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 2-1
OVERALL RECORD: 2-1
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 7 in Baseball America, No. 7 in Collegiate Baseball

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS
Feb. 15 vs. Liberty, W, 4-3
Feb. 17 vs. Liberty, W, 8-7
Feb. 17 vs. Liberty, L, 3-2 (DH)

ALBANY IS NEXT: The Albany Great Danes opened their 2013 schedule at the Ron Fraser Classic in Cary, N.C., and dropped two games to Canisius by the scores of 8-2 and 12-4. Their final two games in the tournament were cancelled due to inclement weather.

"I don't know too much (about them)," Holbrook said on Monday. "This will be the first time I've ever coached in a game against them. I know they'll be a competitive bunch. When we've played teams from that (Northeast) region, they love to get down South and get into some warmer weather. They're like kids in a candy store. They'll be excited and play with a lot of energy."

Despite Albany's 0-2 record, Holbrook isn't in the mood to take any opponent lightly after watching USC struggle past Liberty this past weekend.

"We have to improve," Holbrook said. "You look at the score from around the country, there is a lot of parity around college baseball. We just have to worry about ourselves, less about our opponent and keep getting better. We look forward to playing again Friday. Maybe we'll all take a deep breath and relax a little bit more since we have the first weekend under us and play the way we're capable of playing."

SEC rivals Florida and Arkansas, two teams also ranked in Baseball America's Top 25, lost home games to Duke and Western Illinois, respectively, this past weekend, while Georgia fell twice to Georgia Southern.

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE
Friday vs. Albany, 3 p.m.
Saturday vs. Albany, 1:30 p.m.
Sunday vs. Albany, 1:30 p.m.

NOTES

* English was thrown out twice at second base on failed hit-and-runs. "We have to do a better job at the plate protecting him," Holbrook said. "Making contact when the hit and run is called (is key). It's the hitter's responsibility to make contact. He got thrown out. But you don't learn how to steal bases by sitting over there. Now is the time to learn. He's a little uncomfortable, but we're going to keep working on it and I'm going to keep letting him run."

* Left-hander Jordan Montgomery blanked Liberty over six innings. He extended a scoreless inning streak of 14 dating to last season. The win marked his third straight victory in a start for the Gamecocks dating to last year.

* Junior leftfielder Graham Saiko and English both had three runs scored to lead the team in the Liberty series. Saiko hit .300 (3-for-10) with an RBI and three walks as well. He has a .462 on-base percentage after the first weekend. English hit .333 (3-for-9) with two walks and has a .455 on-base percentage.

* The nine strikeouts by left-hander Nolan Belcher in the third game marked the most for the senior from Augusta, Ga., since he struck out a career-high 11 on May 15, 2009, in a win over Georgia as a freshman.

* Even though he struggled in the field, Vergason excelled at the plate with a team-leading .571 on-base percentage. He tallied a base hit, walked twice and was hit by a pitch in seven plate appearances. He also scored two runs and drove in a run.



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