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April 9, 2014

Diamond Extra: Furman

GREENVILLE, S.C. - Will he or won't he?

Hit, that is.

Brought in to hit and pitch, so far freshman Taylor Widener has done far more of the latter than the former.

Widener, rated the No. 5 player in South Carolina as a senior at South Aiken High School last year and No. 175 player in America, has so far thrown 20.2 innings, second-most among non-starters behind setup man Cody Mincey (21.1). In the space of a few short weeks he's gone from potential contributor to a player USC has confidence to throw in any situation at home or on the road.

Just this past weekend at Arkansas, Widener threw the final 1.2 innings in relief of Jack Wynkoop and didn't allow a hit, run or walk while striking out one. On Tuesday against Furman, Widener's numbers for innings pitched (4.1) and strikeouts (4) were career highs.

Widener hasn't allowed an earned run this season, sporting a cool 0.00 ERA with 17 strikeouts against five walks and 10 hits.

In high school, Widener hit .370 as a senior and .320 as a junior. He was brought here to hit as well as pitch, but so far this season at the plate, Widener has gotten only 14 at-bats and is hitting .143 (2-for-18), second-lowest on the team for players with more than 10 at-bats. Holbrook credits that to his limited opportunities and believes that will change shortly.

"I haven't given up on him DH'ing," Holbrook said. "The more and more we struggle...I think our DH for the year is hitting around .200. That's not good. All DHs are on the table. I'm going to keep trying to find one to get hot.

"We haven't had a DH get hot yet, and Taylor can do that. I have confidence in him as a hitter. He's just become very important to us on the mound. Against right-hand pitchers, I need to get him some cracks at it. We have three games this weekend, we have two next week, so there's going to be some opportunities to get some at-bats.

For Widener, the opportunity to hit is one he relishes even though he thought he'd have hit more than he has halfway through the season. Asked if he was surprised he's thrown so much this year, Widener was honest.

"Yes," Widener said. "I figured I would hit a little more than I pitched, but I'll keep doing what they want me to do."

LEAD-OFF SOLUTION?: Still juggling lead-off candidates, Holbrook started Joey Pankake at the top of the order for the first time this season and the first time since 2012.

"Here's the thinking with that," Holbrook said. "Joey's got a high on-base percentage (.407). He's one of our best baserunners, and I felt like over the first few conference series he's been pitched to very carefully. Opponents respect Joey, and they haven't given him many pitches to hit.

"So I thought putting him in the lead-off spot would make the opponent go after him a little bit, get him a few more fastballs, make them attack him. You can't pitch around the lead-off guy. And on top of that, we haven't had anyone have any success at that spot."

Asked whether Pankake was a short-term or long-term solution, Holbrook wasn't sure.

"I change my mind like every other day about that lead-off spot," Holbrook said. "Right now he's (Pankake) our best hitter, and if K(yle) Mart(in) and Max (Schrock) are swinging the bat, I can lead him off for the rest of the year."

THREE'S A CHARM: The three runs USC scored in the first inning Tuesday were the most runs it has scored in the first inning all year.

SCHROCK OFF SCHNEID: Only 2-for-34 (.059) in his at-bats since his walk-off home run against Ole Miss in the first SEC series of the year, Max Schrock bounced back with a 2-4 night against Furman with an RBI single.

Holbrook said Schrock was still feeling the effects of a sprained ankle suffered earlier in the season.

"Max is still a little bit gimpy as y'all can see out there," Holbrook said. "He's not 100 percent. We have to try and get him off his feet; that (injury) has been lingering longer than I wanted it to."

POWER OF A HAIRCUT: Before coming to Greenville on Tuesday, the coaching staff made first baseman Kyle Martin get a haircut. Holbrook said Martin's long locks had been getting in the way of his concentration, and pointed to the results Tuesday night - 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBI - as proof of his policy's effectiveness.

"We made him cut his hair," Holbrook said of the cut. "And he hit a home run. In my book, there's a correlation.

"That hair was too much. I knew yesterday we were throwing BP and working our tails off and he kept having to move his hair because he couldn't see. I said, 'It's time. Not only aren't you swinging the bat well, you can't see in BP.' We weren't going to let him get on the bus today if he didn't cut his hair."

South Carolina NEWS


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