See Thursday's T&D print edition for a profile of LB Dantzler's "powerful" season and column about perception and reality when it comes to Clemson Jack Leggett and his team's history vs. South Carolina.
COLUMBIA – South Carolina has played 57 games. Now is not the preferred time to be making drastic changes in the lineup.
Such was the case when Chad Holbrook was asked what his emergency plan was if Max Schrock, who sustained a concussion in the No. 18 Gamecocks’ last game, couldn’t play (Schrock is expected to be ready for Friday’s NCAA Regional-opener against St. Louis).
Holbrook answered that he wasn’t going to do anything too heavy, as in switching first baseman LB Dantzler back to his natural third base, and moving third baseman Chase Vergason to second to replace Schrock, and playing Kyle Martin at first. No, if the Gamecocks have to do anything, freshman DC Arendas, one of the team’s best defenders, will take Schrock’s place in the lineup. The reason? Ray Tanner taught Holbrook that switching two or more men in the lineup, especially this close to the end of the season, was often not the wisest move if one switch could cover the gap.
Those are scenarios that are unlikely to happen, as Schrock has progressively gotten better every day since the injury and should be helming second on Friday. But Holbrook may have another switch or two in mind despite that.
Corner outfielders Graham Saiko and Connor Bright are not locks to helm their positions once the NCAA Regionals begin. Holbrook started senior Sean Sullivan over Bright during USC’s second and final SEC tournament game, and removed Saiko midway through the game in favor of TJ Costen.
Costen ended up going 1-for-2 with a strikeout and a walk, while making a solid diving catch. Sullivan was a mere 1-for-5 but had competitive at-bats. It was enough to make Holbrook think before making out his lineup for Friday.
Although Saiko has been a staple in left field and a near-constant in the leadoff spot, and Bright replaced Costen mid-season and began squaring up balls to become one of the team’s best hitters, each has been struggling. With the postseason and a no-more-tomorrow chance creeping to the present, Holbrook can’t afford to stick with sentimentality or the standard just because.
“This is South Carolina,” Holbrook bluntly said after the SEC tournament. “If you don’t play well, someone else is sitting over there who deserves a chance.”
Saiko has been solid in the field despite being a converted outfielder, and was doing well in the leadoff spot before settling into a rash of strikeouts. He was 0-for-3 with two Ks before he was lifted during the tournament, and his average has dropped to .250.
Bright, while still sporting a .288 average, fourth on the team, has also severely cooled off from a red-hot start. His first-pitch aggression is becoming more of a hindrance and his defense, while he’s never blown a chance, is also in that converted-infielder stage.
Costen was playing well before he popped his arm out of socket mid-season, which opened the door for Bright to start. Sullivan, a clubhouse leader and a player who has given everything he’s had to the Gamecocks, has gained the reputation of a pinch-hit specialist who will always provide a competitive at-bat and can often start a rally, or collect a game-winning hit.
The two in front of them weren’t playing well, so they got a chance. They showed enough to give Holbrook something to think about as the NCAA Regionals begin.
Costen provides speed on the basepaths, but has always been an adventure on defense and has been known to have his base-running ability turn against him. That and the fact that he seemingly is behind in every at-bat may give Holbrook room to pause.
Saiko is a prototypical No. 2 hitter but switched to leadoff when Tanner English was still learning the intricacies of switch-hitting. When English hurt his shoulder and could no longer switch-hit, he stayed at the bottom of the order while Saiko mostly stayed at leadoff. His average has steadily declined over the final third of the year.
Bright has some power (four home runs) and can hit a ball right on the screws, but Sullivan is that kind of veteran presence that a team stocked with youth craves. Even before he started, he was a late-inning defensive presence. Hitting .310 despite only starting four games and playing in 25, Sullivan has driven in 12 runs and could be a surprise element for the postseason.
There are still three days before Holbrook has to make a move and stick with it. He has practice to observe and see what kind of pitcher he’ll face on Friday. He has to see what kind of hustle Saiko and Bright display in practice and remember what they’ve done all season, not just the last few games.
But spots aren’t permanent in any case. It’s now win or go home.
“Graham and Connor, they haven’t been playing well,” Holbrook said. “When you don’t play well over a considerable period of time, other guys deserve a chance. There are going to be some guys next week outside center field fighting to play.”