Until last year's NCAA Regional in Columbia, Kyle Martin was branded as one of South Carolina's best bench players.
Then he went 6-for-12 (.500) with a home run, six RBI and four runs scored in three straight wins by the Gamecocks - one over St. Louis and two against Liberty - earning him Regional MVP honors and a coveted spot on the All-Tournament team.
A week later, Martin continued his torrid hitting by going 3-for-5 with two runs scored in Game 1 of the Super Regional at North Carolina.
Suddenly, Martin became a household name among USC supporters following two years of spot duty, mostly as a reliable pinch-hitter from the left side.
With the start of the 2014 just over two weeks away, USC coach Chad Holbrook hopes Martin parlays his confidence-building, post-season success into a productive gig as the Gamecocks' starting first baseman.
Based on his performance in fall practice, Martin looks ready to handle a full-time role.
"Kyle has been terrific," Holbrook said recently. "(He was) maybe the most pleasant surprise of the fall, maybe our MVP of the fall if you went on productivity. He is going to open up the year as our first baseman and hit in the middle of our lineup. His practices (individual workouts) have been incredible. He has worked hard."
After sitting behind Christian Walker (2012) and L.B. Dantzler (2013) during his first two years in the program awaiting his chance to play, Martin recognizes his time has finally arrived.
"I'm looking forward to playing every day," Martin said. "It's going to be a different experience because I haven't done it the past two years. It will be a lot better for me. The consistency will help a lot."
Martin's approach at the plate should change playing every day compared to the periodic pinch-hitting appearance.
"It takes a little stress off not having to perform every single AB," Martin said. "Coming in to pinch-hit, you're expected to do a lot and it puts a lot of pressure on you. It's a tough job for anybody to do. You're cold and not loose and you're expected to go up there and get a hit. That pressure is gone now. Hopefully, I can loosen up and keep consistent."
In addition, Martin should have a pivotal role in a new-look Gamecock infield with possibly three different starters at new positions on opening day. Only Max Schrock is expected to remain in the same spot (second base) since Joey Pankake has moved from short to third. Either Marcus Mooney or D.C. Arendas should take over at short with Martin replacing Dantzler at first.
"I'm getting better and getting stronger in everything," Martin said. "I accept it and look forward (to playing every day) rather than sitting on the bench and coming in to pinch-hit. Going out there and playing every day is something I've always looked forward to doing. I can't wait to do it."
Although most of Martin's publicity has been generated from his bat, his solid defense affords him a chance to start every game. Martin has committed just two errors in 74 career games for a .987 fielding percentage.
"He is a very good defender over at first base," Holbrook said. "That's why we started him there the last couple of weeks of the season last year. He digs a lot of balls out of the dirt and can make our infielders look awfully good."
Martin batted .288 (23-for-80) last season with two homers and 10 RBI. He fanned just 11 times in his 80 at-bats (once every 7.3 at bats), a respectable ratio for a power hitter living in a conference filled with power arms on the mound, and drew 10 walks in compiling an on-base percentage of .367.
"We've been most impressed with how he's improved as a hitter," Holbrook said. "We think he's a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup type hitter now. Hopefully, he'll carry what he did in the fall into the spring and be a big-time run producer for us. He has the potential to hit double digit home runs and be a force in the middle of our lineup."
Delighted he sustained the momentum from his late season heroics into the fall, Martin hopes the same holds true for preseason camp and the early stages of the 2014 season, Holbrook's second as head coach.
"I worked on some things and finally got into a groove and figured it all out," Martin said about his late season surge. "I just carried it over to the fall and stuck with it. Being able to see live pitching every day does help. Probably having consistently good ABs does help too. I just stuck with it and kept my approach and kept everything the same and continued on."
Martin was a standout pitcher at Wade Hampton High School, but has yet to take the mound for the Gamecocks. However, that could change in 2014. He threw an inning in last Saturday's scrimmage.
"Kyle will pitch," Holbrook said. "He did pitch well this fall. How much we use him, I don't know. It will depend on how some of the other guys do. He knows what he is doing out there. He certainly has pitchability, he changes speeds, he changes arm angles. He is very tough on lefties. He will get some opportunities on the mound as well."
Martin's biggest stumbling block taking the mound for the first time in almost three years was shaking off the rust.
"I haven't done it in a while, but I enjoy pitching," Martin said. "It's a different view. It takes me away from first base and gets me into a different mindset. But everything stays the same hitting wise."
Because of his proven effectiveness in the fall against left-handed hitters, Martin anticipates being utilized as a "lefty specialist" during the season, suggesting he could be called upon occasionally to face one or two hitters from that side of the plate in a crucial situation.
"Just come in and get a couple of outs or so," Martin said, projecting his possible bullpen role. "There are a lot of things to put into motion if I come in to pitch. If it happens, I'll be there."
KYLE MARTIN'S CAREER STATISTICS:
At Bats: 158
Batting Average: .291
Fielding Percentage: .987 (2 Errors)
2014 PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
C - Grayson Greiner
1B - Kyle Martin
2B - Max Schrock
3B - Joey Pankake
SS - Marcus Mooney OR D.C. Arendas
LF - Elliott Caldwell
CF - Tanner English
RF - Connor Bright
DH - Brison Celek
SP - Jordan Montgomery