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March 8, 2014

Diamond Extra: Zero is the best number



South Carolina amassed 27 hits and 21 runs in Saturday's doubleheader sweep over Brown, but the most impressive numbers were zero.

As in, zero errors committed by the USC defense and zero walks issued by the Gamecock pitching staff over the course of 18 innings, a remarkable performance in both categories.

Game 2 of the doubleheader featured several highlight reel defensive plays by the Gamecocks, including outstanding catches by outfielders Connor Bright and Tanner English in the top of the second inning, pitcher Jack Wynkoop snaring a liner in the fifth and first baseman Kyle Martin making a diving stop on a hard grounder targeted for the right field corner.

Six USC pitchers in the two games combined for 19 strikeouts without issuing a single free pass to a total of 62 Brown hitters.

In today's college baseball, pitching and defense are vital ingredients for any winning formula and Saturday USC has cooked up the perfect meal with flawless performances in both areas.

"We played two very clean games, well-pitched and well-defended," USC coach Chad Holbrook said after Saturday's sweep. "We harp on our guys all the time about free bases. We want to make them earn what they get. We want people to have to get a hit to score a run. That's how we play and how we've played since I've been here.

"It's hard to score on us when we're throwing strikes. You have to earn it. If we can keep playing like that, we'll be in our fair share of games. Today, our pitchers pounded the strike zone all day long and we made plays behind them."

USC has committed just 10 errors in 14 games, compiling a gaudy team fielding percentage of .980 compared to .952 for the opponents.

"If we don't walk people and we make plays behind our pitching staff, it's hard to score in this day and age of college baseball," Holbrook said. "We have some guys that can play defense. When our opponent hits the ball into the outfield, there is a good chance Tanner English is going to catch it.

"If they hit it on the ground, we have some guys that can pick it up. Our pitchers are very comfortable pitching to contact. They know they can throw the ball over the middle of the plate and our guys can pick it up behind them. That makes it easier for Coach (Jerry) Meyers to call a game."

With 25 percent of the regular season complete, half of USC's first 14 victories have been shutouts. The Gamecocks fired five straight shutouts earlier in the season and take a two-game shutout streak into Sunday's series finale.

"We have some depth to our pitching staff and we have some pitchability," Holbrook said. "I don't think we blow people away with our velocity. We don't have the arm strength Vanderbilt has or maybe some other teams have. But we can change speeds and locate our off-speed pitches. We have a balanced staff that is throwing the ball very well.

"But we're not going to shutout people all year long. That's not who we are. But I think we can keep people at bay and hopefully with the way we play defense, find a way to win games late when we get into SEC play."

All four relief pitchers used in Saturday's doubleheader were freshmen - Taylor Widener (1.0 in Game 2), Reed Scott (1.2 IP in Game 1), Matthew Vogel (1.0 IP in Game 1) and John Parke (1.0 IP in Game 1).

The effectiveness of the young hurlers meant USC could give front-line relievers Cody Mincey and Joel Seddon a valuable day off with the start of SEC play looming on Friday. Holbrook said Seddon, the closer, could pitch on Sunday in order to keep him sharp.

"I didn't want to use them today," Holbrook said. "But those bullpen guys need to keep pitching. They need to get out there. But I don't want to use them too much. I'd like to use them one time before Ole Miss. But there is no guarantee. I'm pretty certain we'll throw Seddon an inning tomorrow regardless of the score. Those closers need to get their work."

The four freshmen combined for no runs, two hits, six strikeouts and, of course, no walks in 4.2 innings pitched. They threw 66 pitches, 43 for strikes, a strike percentage of 65.2 percent.

"It was neat to see Reed, Matt, John and Taylor throw the ball extremely well," Holbrook said. "Those are four freshmen that have bright futures in our program. They've given our bullpen some depth. Vogel and Widener can run it up there pretty good."

NOTES:

-- Bright's 12-game hitting streak ended in Game 2 of Saturday's doubleheader when he went 0-for-2 with a walk and sacrifice fly. However, Bright had three hits in Game 1 and enters Sunday's series finale with an impressive team-leading .451 batting average (23-for-51) and eight doubles, twice as many as the next Gamecock hitter.

-- USC's team ERA entering Sunday's series finale is 1.29. The Gamecocks have 131 strikeouts and only 29 walks in 126.0 IP. Opponents are batting a lowly .202 against USC with just 14 extra base hits in 14 games.

-- Greiner went 5-for-8 and raised his average 46 points to .396 (19-for-48) in Sunday's doubleheader. He also scored five runs.

-- The school record for most shutouts in a single season is 14 (1975).

-- Twenty different players made an appearance in the Game 1 rout.

-- Holbrook said third baseman Joey Pankake tweaked his hamstring and is listed as "questionable at best" for Sunday's game. "Right now, I'm leaning towards not playing him tomorrow," Holbrook said.

DM


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