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March 20, 2014

Holbrook still looking for ideal leadoff



South Carolina has lost just one game in the first five weeks of the season and currently stands as the consensus No. 1 team in the country.

However, life for coach Chad Holbrook hasn't completely been a bed of roses.

Finding an ideal leadoff hitter has so far eluded Holbrook in his second year guiding the Gamecock program as seen by USC utilization of four different hitters atop the lineup in the first 19 games.

"I don't know if I can just create one," Holbrook told reporters Thursday in a press conference shortly before the team departed by bus for Lexington, Ky. for this weekend's crucial three-game series against SEC Eastern Division rival Kentucky.

"We have what we have. I don't think I'm ever going to put what I classify as a true leadoff guy in that spot all year long. I don't know if we have one on our roster. But that doesn't mean we're not going to have a good hitter in the leadoff spot. We can put a good hitter up there."

Shortstop Marcus Mooney has led off 12 times and is batting .304 (21-of-69) with four doubles, 10 RBI, nine walks and a .400 on-base percentage.

Good numbers. However, Mooney doesn't squarely fit Holbrook's philosophy regarding the most advantageous hitting approach for a leadoff hitter because the JUCO transfer is frequently very aggressive at the plate and doesn't take enough pitches.

What qualities does Holbrook desire in a superlative leadoff hitter?

"Somebody that walks more than they strike out," Holbrook said initially. "Obviously, they can run and set the table for our guys in the middle of our lineup. They're a high on-base percentage guy. They're a tough out. Tough to strikeout. Won't chase pitches out of the strike zone. And they have to fiery and emotional. They set the tone.

"Right now, I just don't have a true bonafide leadoff guy that fits those characteristics."

Elliott Caldwell (4 games), Max Schrock (2 games) and Connor Bright (1 games) have also served as the leadoff hitter this season.

Last weekend, Mooney (Games 1 and 3) and Bright (game 2) combined to go 3-for-13 from the leadoff spot with three runs, one RBI, one walk and two strikeouts.

"I'm going to continue putting Mooney up there," Holbrook said. "I might mess around and put Elliott Caldwell there from time to time. It depends on how we're playing and how things are going. I could put Connor up there again because he swings the bat so well."

Tanner English? Holbrook intends to keep USC's fastest player in the No. 9 spot, where he has grown comfortable as reflected by his statistics - .339 batting average (21-of-62), three doubles, one homer, .431 on-base percentage and three stolen bases.

But English also has a team-high 13 strikeouts with just eight walks, so he prefers to take his hacks at the plate as well.

"I'm going to keep Tanner down there in the nine hole," Holbrook said. "He fits it (leadoff spot) talent wise and skill set wise and speed, and his on-base percentage is higher now and he's hitting for a higher average. But I want to keep a good thing going and for me to do that I'll keep him right where he is."

While he is eager to find a guy he can confidently pencil into the leadoff spot every game, Holbrook says he learned an important lesson from former head coach Ray Tanner.

"The leadoff guy only leads off once a game," Holbrook smiled. "So we'll just keep on keeping on."



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