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March 11, 2014

Diamond Extra: Childress provides perspective



With a game to win, several streaks to defend and a few thousand cheering fans in front of them, perhaps what the Gamecocks needed most as they prepared to take the field against Furman Tuesday night was a heavy dose of perspective.

That's what they got when Martha Childress, the USC student paralyzed by a stray bullet while awaiting a taxi in Five Points in October 2013, was honored before South Carolina's 5-0 victory over the Paladins.

With Childress in her wheelchair at his side, Holbrook talked to the crowd about how she has become an inspiration for the team and USC's student body. Then he presented her with a No. 7 USC baseball jersey and a check for $1,000 for her ongoing care.

Holbrook said USC's baseball program over the past few years has embraced mantras like "Battle" and "Win Anyway," and that Childress is the living embodiment of both. Just before the game, Childress was joined by the baseball team near the mound, where she threw out the first pitch.

"As important as the game was, I kind of felt like what transpired before the game was as important," Holbrook said after the game. "That girl, Martha's been an incredible inspiration to our student body, our athletic department. How she's handled a very unfortunate situation with such grace, it's just simply amazing to me.

"I'm certainly glad our baseball program's gotten to know her. I feel lucky to have known her - to know her - and I look forward to spending a lot of time with her and her family as we go forward.

"If that didn't put a baseball game in perspective, I don't know what will."

A PLEASANT SURPRISE. When left-handed relievers Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland graduated last spring, Holbrook wasn't sure who, if anyone, would step in and replace them.

For Holbrook, the answer to that question has been a pleasant surprise.

South Carolina's bullpen has been phenomenal this season, refusing to allow a run in 47.2 consecutive innings dating back to the season opener against Bucknell. What's more, the Gamecocks haven't had to rely on just one or two veterans to shoulder the burden.

Eleven pitchers have made relief appearances for South Carolina this season, and only two of them have allowed an earned run. The strength of the bullpen was on display Tuesday when freshman Taylor Widener - making his first start after three relief appearances - and five other pitchers combined to shut out that Paladins.

"It's one of the strengths of our team," Holbrook said after the game. "And I didn't know if I'd say that prior to game one."

What's been even more remarkable for Holbrook is how dominant his young pitchers have been in relief. Veterans like Joel Seddon, Vince Fiori, Hunter Privette and junior college transfers Cody Mincey and Trey McNickle have been solid. But freshmen Josh Reagan, Taylor Widener, John Parke, Reed Scott and Matthew Vogel have held their own as well.

"I guess we threw three freshmen in there today, and one of the things that I thought - and you don't really know what freshmen are going to do when they come in to this level," Holbrook said. "They might need a year. They might need two years. Who knows?"

Holbrook said it helps that the freshmen on his staff throw strikes and go after batters early in the count.

"In this day and age and the way this game is played, throwing strikes is a huge part of the deal," Holbrook said. "You don't have to wow people with crazy stuff. Josh Reagan doesn't have great stuff. He throws strikes. He changes speeds.

"Reed Scott's the same way, you know. Righty-lefty. And Taylor didn't throw as well. You look at his line, you say he threw very well. Well he didn't throw as well as he's capable of, but he managed it, and you don't see freshmen manage that kind of thing when they don't feel like they got their fastball or they're locating as well as they normally locate.

"Our pitching staff has been extremely deep, and the number of guys that we can throw in there, and we have confidence in all of them. They throw strikes. They let their defense play behind them, and with Cody and Joel back at the back end of the game, we feel good about those guys."

STAT BREAKDOWN: IN THE CRUNCH. South Carolina had eight hits against Furman Tuesday and made them count. The Gamecocks performed best at the plate in crunch time, notching all five runs - and six of their eight hits - with two outs.

By contrast, Furman went 0-9 with two outs. And that wasn't the only statistic that pointed to a major difference in the teams' poise under pressure.

South Carolina left just four men on base, while Furman left 11.

South Carolina batted .333 with runners on base, while Furman batted just .111.

South Carolina batted .444 with runners in scoring position, while Furman went 0-11.

And South Carolina batted .538 in advancement opportunities, while Furman batted .350.

Much of this can be attributed to the difference in pitching talent between the teams, but South Carolina's ability to string together hits and plate runs in crucial spots has become a season-long trend.

HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE. South Carolina's baseball team officially has the longest home winning streak in the country. The Gamecocks have won 22 straight at Carolina Stadium dating back to last season.

South Carolina is 169-32 in all-time games at Carolina Stadium, a winning percentage of .841. That's the best percentage of all 14 SEC schools since Carolina Stadium opened.

South Carolina also owns the longest home winning streak in the country in football. The Gamecocks have won 18 straight games in Williams-Brice Stadium.

INJURY UPDATE. The Gamecocks have found ways to win this season without several starters who have missed games with injury, but Holbrook hopes two of his biggest bats will return to the lineup for the start of SEC play.

Joey Pankake missed Sunday's game against Brown and Tuesday's game against Furman with a tweaked hamstring, but Holbrook said he's nearly 100 percent certain the Easley native will take the field against Ole Miss Friday.

If Tuesday's game were a conference game, Pankake would have played, Holbrook said. But the head coach was less optimistic about second baseman Max Schrock, who suffered a second-degree sprain on his left ankle against Stetson last week and hasn't played since.

"Max was a lot more sore today than he was yesterday, which is a little concerning," Holbrook said. "But we put him in a boot again and let him stay off of it today, so hopefully tomorrow, he'll have a good day. A little bit less optimistic about Max as I am Joey."

Holbrook said he wouldn't count Schrock out from playing against the Rebels this weekend, but put his odds at 50 percent. Catcher Grayson Greiner also worried Holbrook when he took a ball off the knee in the ninth inning Tuesday.

Holbrook came out of the dugout to check on Greiner, but the junior played the rest of the game.

"Hopefully these next two days we can do some healing and be ready to go on Friday," Holbrook said.

ERRORLESS. The game was South Carolina's eighth this season without an error. The Gamecocks are fielding .980 as a team this season, up from .970 last year.

DARK SIDE OF THE MOONEY. Just two games after Connor Bright's 13-game hitting streak ended Saturday against Brown, Marcus Mooney's magic at the plate ran out as well.

Mooney was South Carolina's top hitter last week, batting .474 (9-for-19) against Stetson and Brown. He entered Tuesday night's game on the heels of a nine-game hitting streak, but went 0-4 with a strikeout against the Paladins.

Normally one of the team's best hitters in clutch situations (nine of his 10 RBI this year have come with two outs), Mooney also stranded two men on base against Furman.

HOME SHORTCOMING. Furman's three-hole hitter, Greg Harrison, spent the 2010 season at USC before transferring to Spartanburg Methodist. He did not see any action for the Gamecocks in 2010, but leads Furman in hitting this season.

Harrison is batting .333 (21-for-63) with nine runs scored, seven doubles, a homer and 10 RBI, but he couldn't match that production against his old team Tuesday. In Furman's 5-0 loss to the Gamecocks, Harrison went 0-3 and was hit by a pitch. He also left three men on base.




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