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February 21, 2014

Diamond Extra: Dazzling defense again



In this New World Order of college baseball, premiums are placed on pitching and defense.

Through five games, South Carolina has been exceptional in both categories.

Jordan Montgomery teamed with relievers Cody Mincey and Joel Seddon for USC's third straight shutout on Friday afternoon as USC blanked Eastern Kentucky, 4-0, on five hits at Carolina Stadium.

But the defense was also glittering again as the Gamecocks didn't commit an error for the fourth straight game, improving their team fielding percentage to .994 after 45 innings of baseball compared to .957 (six errors) by opponents.

"We pride ourselves on pitching and playing defense and that's what we did today," USC coach Chad Holbrook said after the series-opening win over the Colonels. "When you pitch and play defense, you have a chance to win every game. That's what we're doing right now.

"You can't judge us on just five games, but you can see the makings that we can play defense. Hopefully, that will be the consistent part of our game. Someday, you're not going to get that big hit, but if you pitch and play defense, you still have a chance to win."

The only miscue in the field by USC so far this season was a dropped fly by centerfielder Tanner English a week ago in the season opener against Bucknell, meaning the Gamecock infield has yet to commit an error after five games.

"We work hard at it," Holbrook said. "We work hard at playing defense. Those kids work extremely hard on their ground balls and double plays. It's a lot of time and effort. We're not going to be perfect every game. We're not going to play errorless baseball every game, but our pitchers are confident that they can throw the ball over the plate and our guys are going to pick it up behind them. Pitchers don't feel like they have to strike everybody out. That's a comforting feeling."

When asked if USC's typically stellar defensive play translates into a more relaxed head coach whenever an opposing batter puts the ball into play, Holbrook just laughed.

"I hold my breath all day," Holbrook smiled. "It's easy for you guys up there in the press box to say we have this one in the bag, but I don't feel that way. I'm always worried about getting the tying run up in the ninth inning. But yes, when the ball is put into play, we have guys that can make a play. So far, we have shown that."

NO PRESSURE ON HITTERS?: Do the standout performances by Gamecock hurlers through five games take the pressure off USC hitters because they know they don't have to score many runs to win games?

"No matter what, we're going to try to go out there and score runs for our defense," Kyle Martin said. "We have a great pitching staff from Montgomery to (Wil) Crowe and (Jack) Wynkoop. They all go out there and do what they do best and we just try to back them up."

Even though USC has compiled a team batting average of .336 (45-for-134) with five homers, 11 doubles and 45 runs scored (9.0 per game) in racing out to a perfect 5-0 start, Holbrook insisted the plate approach by some Gamecock hitters must improve.

"I'm a little disappointed in the way we played offensively," Holbrook said after USC collected seven hits. "Our plate approach wasn't what we work on a daily basis. I'm displeased with a couple of our hitters. Hopefully, we'll come back and swing the bats a little bit better tomorrow."

MINCEY, SEDDON COMBINATION: Did Friday's shutout offer a preview of coming attractions as far as the pitching staff is concerned? JUCO transfer Cody Mincey pitched the eighth inning and Joel Seddon the ninth, striking out four of the seven batters they faced, in polishing off the shutout.

Combining for 5.1 innings this season, Mincey (team-high three appearances) and Seddon have allowed no runs and one hit while fanning 11 and walking one. Seddon has retired all six batters he has faced. Meanwhile, Mincey has fanned seven batters in 3.1 innings. Seven of the 10 outs he has recorded has come via the strikeout.

"Based on how they're throwing, there's not much to dislike," Holbrook said. "They've thrown great. We feel good with both of those guys. Mincey has thrown better since we started playing. Joel has been that way since we came back in January. It's really good to have a two-headed monster back there. Right now, we feel good about either one of those guys finishing the game."

Seddon, a right-hander, has been very effective against left-handed batters in large part he is throwing his changeup consistently for strikes, Holbrook said.

"The difference between him this year and last year is now he's throwing that pitch for a strike," Holbrook said. "It's been neat to watch him."

NOTES:

-- Montgomery's scoreless streak is officially 33.2 innings dating back to last season. He last allowed a run in the second inning of his start against Vanderbilt in the 2013 SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala. He hasn't allowed a run in 12.0 IP this season.

-- Holbrook changed the batting order for Friday's game, moving Max Schrock to the leadoff spot and English to second while dropping struggling Marcus Mooney to ninth. Mooney is batting .200 (4-for-20) after going 0-for-3 on Friday. "It was just a gut feeling," Holbrook said. "I wanted to get Tanner up there and maybe give him a boost of confidence. If either Max or Tanner get on in the first innings, they're capable of stealing a base and gives you a chance to get a runner in scoring position right out of the gate." Holbrook hinted he might continue tinkering with the order, quickly adding he wants to find a lineup he is comfortable with as soon as possible.

-- Holbrook said USC being doubled off on a line drive to the shortstop was "inexcusable," saying those are the kind of plays "that can get you beat."

-- Schrock on USC's solid pitching and defense so far in 2014: "Our program is built on pitching and defense, and we've been doing those very well. We've had one error in our games so far. That's pretty good for our team. Obviously, our pitchers have done very well. They're locating and throwing all their pitches for strikes and that's crucial."

DM


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