USC head coach Chad Holbrook's decision to sit sophomore second baseman Max Schrock and junior right fielder Connor Bright in No. 18 South Carolina's SEC Tournament elimination game against No. 3 Florida was as much a statement about the Gamecocks' priorities as it was a move to give both players time to get healthy.
The Gamecocks may not have beaten the Gators (who won that game 7-2) even if Schrock and Bright had been in the lineup, as the two players combined to go 0-for-4 in USC's 12-0 loss to Mississippi State the night before.
But leaving them out of the lineup - in a game that could have determined whether USC would earn a national seed, nonetheless - in favor of a pair of players (Jordan Gore and Patrick Harrington) with batting averages flirting with the Mendoza line sends a clear message, one South Carolina's baseball team has embraced of late.
Be ready to play - and play your best - when it matters.
So far, Holbrook's move is paying off. The Gamecocks' skipper said Monday he expects both players to be back in the lineup for the Columbia Regional this weekend.
Weary of bringing his team to the ballpark time and time again this season without knowing which players would be available to play, Holbrook also said he thinks both players have recovered well enough to finish out the rest of the season.
Holbrook said Schrock looked like a "big leaguer" in batting practice Monday morning, the sophomore's first day back at practice since being pulled from the lineup in the SEC Tournament.
He added that he was optimistic the Chapel Hill, N.C., native, who's batting .270 with five homers and 18 RBI through 31 games, will only get stronger as he continues to recover from a back injury that sidelined him for much of the second half of the season.
"The whole key with Max is the next day," said Holbrook. "I didn't let him practice all week. I didn't let him play against Florida in the last game just because I felt rest was paramount for him."
Bright, quietly the team's leading hitter with a .331 batting average in 40 games, is still recovering from a hyper-extended right elbow.
"Connor's been slowly but steadily getting better," Holbrook said. "Barring any unforeseen setbacks, I plan on playing those guys this weekend."
Holbrook said he hoped getting Schrock and Bright back would boost the Gamecocks' morale heading into the NCAA Tournament. By all accounts, the second-year coach was right.
"To have those two guys back in there would be huge for our lineup," said junior catcher Grayson Greiner, who was named to the All-SEC Defensive team Tuesday.
A fellow member of the All-SEC Defensive team echoed Greiner.
"That's really going to help us out," said junior third baseman Joey Pankake. "We'll get runners on base, maybe drive some more runs in. Even if nobody is on, just getting more baserunners and having the opportunity to score more runs."
But having two of its best players return has proven to be a challenge in and of itself.
Holbrook said he will struggle with finding a place for them, especially given what freshmen Gene Cone (.217 BA, 18 RBI in 41 games) and Jordan Gore (.217 BA, two HR, 5 RBI in 20 games) and redshirt junior Patrick Harrington (.175 BA, nine RBI in 24 games) were able to contribute down the stretch.
"I don't know who I would take out," Holbrook said, adding that USC might have lost the Auburn series in April without key contributions from its less-heralded players. "I've got kind of comfortable with Gene Cone and Patrick Harrington. They've done some nice things for us."
No matter how the lineup shakes up when South Carolina squares off against Regional No. 4 seed Campbell (40-19), the Gamecocks will need depth as well as talent to accomplish their postseason goals, Holbrook said.
"It's going to take more than nine starters to win a championship," Holbrook said. "They might not all be in the starting lineup, but they all can help us win. I hope they'll have that mentality."
Several USC players were just as uncertain about what nine players will take the field Friday night at 7. But they all were optimistic the Gamecocks would bounce back from their poor showing in Hoover with a strong one in front of the home crowd this weekend at Carolina Stadium.
"Pat (Harrington) and Gene (Cone) have played really, really well since they've been in there," Greiner said. "I don't really know what coach (Chad) Holbrook is going to put on the field, but whatever nine guys he puts out there, we need to play our best baseball.
"To get (Max) Schrock and Connor (Bright) back in our lineup would be big, but whoever we have out there, I have the utmost faith that we're going to play our best."
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