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June 3, 2014

Baseball: 2014 Season in Review

The 2014 South Carolina baseball season has ended, and it did so faster than anyone expected or hoped, faster than any team since 2009 and with the school's first home regional loss since - gulp - 1976.

For a team that won its first 16 games and sprinted to a magnificent 26-3 record and No. 1 ranking in the nation, an 18-15 finish that included more than a few humbling moments along the way - a five-game losing streak for the first time since 1997, losing a key series at Georgia, getting embarrassed in all phases of the game in Hoover and, of course, last weekend's rather shocking result in the NCAA Tournament - meant the legacy of the 2014 team ultimately is a disappointing one.

Loaded with experience and talent, this was to be a team led strongly by juniors Joey Pankake, Grayson Greiner, Tanner English, Kyle Martin, Connor Bright and Jordan Montgomery with a heaping helping of veteran sophomores Jack Wynkoop and Max Schrock and an expected strong freshman campaign from Wil Crowe.

Expectations for that group - a solid 1-2-3 starting rotation and enough talent and experience in the field to legitimately think Omaha - were rightly through the roof, and the fast start only confirmed them in nearly every way with the exception that the team's biggest question mark, a setup man and closer, became the team's biggest strength through the mighty performances of JUCO transfer Cody Mincey and surprising junior Joel Seddon.

So what in the world went wrong? In a word, offense.

Injuries to Schrock, Elliot Caldwell and Bright took a toll. Losing two-thirds of your opening day starting outfield is not insignificant, though Bright was the bigger blow by far as he was hitting .340 on April 19 before hyperextending his right elbow and playing in just two regular season games the rest of the way until the postseason. Caldwell started hot, hitting .317 in non-conference play, cooled off mightily once the SEC season began, hitting just .200 (12-for-60) in SEC play before a back injury sidelined him the rest of the year.

Scrambling for bodies at times, USC got noble, if underwhelming statistically, offensive performances from Patrick Harrington (.172), Gene Cone (.221), Jordan Gore (.226) and DC Arendas (.271) filling in for the injured Schrock, Bright and Caldwell. Gutsy efforts all, but none provided an offensive spark equal to the bats they replaced.

So, with two big bats out (Schrock and Bright) USC needed offensive help, and the biggest area of disappointment offensively in 2014 was the output from the one position designed specifically for offensive production: designated hitter.

As a senior with stripes on his sleeve, as the saying goes, Brison Celek got every opportunity to contribute as the designated hitter and finished the season with a .188 average (16-85). Of Celek's 20 starts at DH, he went hitless in more than half (12) of them and had more than one hit in a game just twice all year. His seven RBI were a team-low for players with 15 or more starts. By contrast, Harrington, an emergency reserve who Holbrook said was fortunate to even make the team, had nine RBI in almost 30 fewer at-bats. Freshman Taylor Widener, who started 12 as the designated hitter, hit .191 with no home runs and just two RBI.

Schrock, of course, was the team's best designated hitter, with 12 starts in the regular season and five in the postseason. Battling through significant injuries he still managed to compile a .299 average, better even than his healthy 2013 campaign in which he hit .288 while starting 61 games.

There's nothing to be said for the pitching staff this year except that it was terrific as usual and better than expected, even, from a bullpen situation. The only disappointment in the postseason was the play of Wynkoop. After being arguably the most consistent starter throughout the season, sporting at one point a 5-2 record with a 2.07 ERA, Wynkoop went 2-4 the rest of the way, including 0-3 in his final three starts. At Vanderbilt, Wynkoop was rocked for nine hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings and didn't see the third inning in either of his two postseason starts. Over those final three starts, Wynkoop threw nine innings, allowing 16 hits with 14 runs (nine earned) and an ERA of 9.00.

Still, it's hard to pin anything on him or a staff that did nearly everything asked of them and more. What was more troubling was a willingness to accept defeat that first showed up when the team lost seven of nine games beginning at Arkansas. Over that stretch the team lost much, if not all, of the confidence and swagger it showed with late-inning comeback wins earlier in the year against Clemson, Ole Miss and Tennessee.

That lack of confidence and a tendency at times to deflate when faced with adversity popped up again in a Sunday loss to Georgia following a grand slam in the third inning, but it seemingly disappeared with a series win at Vanderbilt that re-ignited national-seed hopes. With a lineup slowly returning to health, this year's trip to Hoover for the SEC Tournament looked to all like a chance to seal a national seed, establish momentum and show the league and country that this year's team was primed for a strong postseason run.

Instead, the Gamecocks took a full-throttled nosedive and the old bugaboos - poor hitting, errors and mental lapses - reappeared in a humiliating loss to Mississippi State and a loss to Florida in which USC appeared to give up when Florida took the lead in the third inning. With a chance to show what the team was made of with national eyes upon it in Hoover, the Gamecocks went backward with velocity.

And yet still, based on its overall body of work USC was awarded a favorable regional comprised of three teams who hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament in a combined 78 years. Playing at home where USC hadn't lost since 2002 and an undefeated 16-0 record at Carolina Stadium, the Gamecocks were supposed to prevail as the top-seeded favorite.

Instead, the team's weaknesses reappeared, it was thoroughly outplayed and is now done for good, taking with it a group of juniors so large that next year's team will be barely recognizable to casual fans. In short, this was a year to go far and the Gamecocks didn't. The positives are that the team won 40 games again (44-18) and made the NCAA Tournament. In that regard, they lived up to expectations. In the most meaningful ways, however, for a program and fan base accustomed to playing until mid to late June, they didn't, which isn't so much a knock against this team as the reality of expectations for an elite national program with third-year talent everywhere on the field.

In that regard the story of 2014 is one of a high-flying team that sprinted to a 26-3 record and No. 1 ranking before allowing injuries, setbacks and missed opportunities to write a chapter in program lore that few will want to re-read, especially the ending that includes a frustrating postseason and embarrassing final game that will take a long time -- and a lot of future postseason success -- to forget.

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