Friday’s print edition story previewing South Carolina’s Southeastern Conference opening series at Missouri focuses on the Gamecocks’ hot hitting of late.
Friday night, they will face a guy who they are completely unfamiliar with, because the Gamecocks and Tigers have never met. But USC coach Chad Holbrook has seen and heard enough of junior left-hander Rob Zastryzny to know that he will be a challenge.
In 2011, he had a 4.33 ERA, but 70 strikeouts and 27 walks while emerging as the Friday night starter midway through the season. Last season, he led the Tigers to the Big 12 tournament championship and had a 3.80 ERA, 76 strikeouts and 31 walks. Missouri went 1-2 in the NCAA tournament Regional in Tucson, Ariz.
This season, he has a 4.58 ERA, 17 strikeouts and six walks. He was dominant in his last start, against San Francisco, when he threw a complete game six-hitter with two runs allowed, 10 strikeouts and a walk.
Missouri started the season 0-6, with sweeps at the hands of Southern Mississippi and Memphis, but is 5-1 since. USC (15-2) will be by far the Tigers’ biggest challenge to date.
“We feel good about the way we swung the bat in the middle of the week this week,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said after the Gamecocks beat Davidson 12-4 to follow up a 12-3 win over USC Upstate. “We’ve played 17 games, and we’ve played well for the most part.”
But, Holbrook said, “It looks like (Zastryzny) can be dominant. We’re facing an elite pitcher on Friday. We’ll certainly have our work cut out for us.”
Holbrook wants to get center fielder Tanner English and ace Jordan Montgomery back from shoulder and elbow injuries as soon as he can.
“We need to get healthy,” Holbrook said. “That would help us. SEC play, each game is a 470-yard par 4. It’s just a war. It could go either way. You’ve got to play well, and we’ve played well. It’s not a different sport. Just because we’re going into SEC play, we’re not changing the game that we’ve been currently playing. We’ve got to shore up some base-running mistakes. For the most part, we’ve played great defense. Last year, we started 1-5 and everybody thought the world was ending, and we finished up OK.”
Indeed, after getting swept at Kentucky (following a 15-1 record to start the season) and losing two of three to Florida, USC was 1-5 to start SEC play last season. Then the Gamecocks won 17 of their final 23 league games and made the College World Series finals.
To have another strong SEC showing, they need LB Dantzler to continue his hot hitting. His batting average is .429, compared to .250 entering SEC play last season.
“I think he’s more comfortable here now,” Holbrook said. “A lot of times when you get to a new place and new surroundings, you try to do a little bit too much. You want to make an impression and sometimes you might try too hard. He’s very comfortable here and he knows that we’re counting on him and he’s got a lot of confidence. A year in the weight room with coach Billy Anderson and I think he’s stronger. He’s using the whole field a little bit more (rather than just trying to pull all the time).
“Every now and again, when he’s going into a rut, he’s hitting a lot of top-spin balls because he’s out in front of things and he’s hooking them down the right field line. He’s a much improved hitter. I think it’s a little bit of strength, a lot of confidence and he’s comfortable here after a year spent in the program.”
Dantzler attributed his hot start to “mainly confidence.”
“Last year, I was hitting some balls hard at the beginning of the year and they weren’t falling,” he said. “And it’s tough when you look at your average and you’re going into SEC play and you’re only hitting .220 (actually, .250) and you feel like maybe you should be closer to .320. I got off to a good start this year and got some confidence.”