Holbrook bunts away yet another one-run game

Matt Ryerson-US PRESSWIRE

Twelve months ago, Chad Holbrook's bunt fetish contributed to a one-run loss that eliminated the Gamecocks from the NCAA Tournament. A year later, he's not changed his thinking, and the results haven't changed either.

Last week, Grayson Greiner was left off the All-SEC team. Greiner came third on the team this season in batting average, stroking a .319 over 240 PAs. He slugged .500, the highest on the team and led the team with 21 extra-base hits. If you want a big knock, he's right up there with Kyle Martin, Connor Bright, Joey Pankake and Max Schrock as the guy you want with the bat in his hands.

A junior catcher and one of the best players on the Carolina team, and a pillar of the team this year with key injuries elsewhere on the diamond, many writers expressed surprise that arguably the best catcher in the SEC didn't earn first- or secondt-team SEC honors:

DC Arendas is a nice player. He hit .276 this season over 202 plate appearances, slugging only .382 with 37 singles (which means he singled on 18.3% of his PAs). He had a nice season for the Gamecocks, though no one expressed surprise when he didn't make any All-SEC teams.

Gene Cone is a true freshman who began the season rightfully behind upperclassmen players in the outfield, though as the season went along played his way into the starting line-up, albeit with help from injuries to players like Connor Bright. Cone struggled at the plate this year, batting .222 over 130 plate appearances (lowest on the team for qualifying hitters) and slugging a very weak .293 over the season. He has five extra-base hits to his name and just 16 singles (so he singles just over 12% of his PAs). One of the best prospects in the nation - because who else would Carolina recruit? - he by all accounts will have a great future at South Carolina, and we think he's a terrific baseball player.

So last night, in a 4-3 game with one on and no one out in the 8th inning and six outs separating South Carolina from the loser's bracket - and needing a 3-game win streak to get out of the regional - Chad Holbrook asked Grayson Greiner to square up, give away one of those outs, and hand the bat over to DC Arendas in hopes of getting the tying run. Grayson Greiner did so, advancing Kyle Martin - not exactly fleet of foot Kyle Martin - from first to second base, with Maryland taking the first out of the inning at first base.

Arendas got on base (while he hits .276, his OBP is a much higher .375) via an HBP. Of course, Kyle Martin didn't move up because of this. He'd already advanced via sacrifice bunt. So the entire utility of Greiner bunting went away with this HBP. Sure, Greiner and Martin are about as tailor-made a double play combination as you'll fine on the basepaths, but playing to avoid a double play with one of your best hitters seems an interesting decision in the 8th inning of the NCAA Regionals.

After a Connor Bright fielder's choice, Martin stood on third base and Bright on first with Cone at the plate and two outs. A single scores Martin, but as we noted above, Cone doesn't single, or hit generally, particularly well, and certainly not as well as Grayson Greiner. In the 8th inning of an NCAA Regional game, Chad Holbrook decided he could live with one less at bat from Grayson Greiner. But Gene Cone got to go to the plate and take his hacks. He went down swinging on a 3-2 breaking ball in the dirt to end the inning, and the Terrapins went on to win the game, 4-3.

This is insanity. We've broken down the math before, but this is both generally and particularly dumb. Grayson Greiner is one of the best players on this team, and he's your best shot at an extra-base hit, which either scores Martin or gives you 2nd and 3rd with no outs. Moving Martin to second doesn't help that much because you probably still need two hits to score him (he was not pinch run for after the sacrifice), so you're not saving yourself any work by giving away the out. And while this is results and not prcoess-oriented reasoning, once Arendas takes his HBP, the whole exercise is pointless, because Martin moves up anyway.

This didn't necessarily cost Carolina the baseball game. Jack Wynkook didn't have his best night, and freshman Mike Shawaryn from Maryland gave an impressive performance. Even after you break down the math, this probably only lowers the Gamecocks' chances of winning by a couple of percentage points. It's not giving away the game by any stretch.

But think of how hard this team works for a few percentage points. Hosting a regional doesn't even give you the right to get last bats in every game - Maryland was the "home" team last night - so you're only really giving yourself a game with your home fans behind you. That's worth a few percentage points, but not much more than that. The players you recruit, the batting order, the pitchers you throw, no one of these decisions ultimately impacts who wins or loses. Rather, they add up in a way that tips the scales one direction or the other. You can overcome that of course, but in tight ballgames against good teams, those small swings matter.

They mattered twelve months ago in Chapel Hill, when Holbrook decided bunting Joey Pankake in the first inning was the best way to grab a win, a game where the Gamecocks ultimately fell short by one run in their quest to reach Omaha.

Holbrook's a great coach. He's done a great job in his first few seasons in Columbia, and by all accounts will continue to do so. But last night, and last year, he threw away opportunities for his best players to help win critical games. And last night, this is how he described the decision:

Twelve months later, Chad Holbrook hasn't learned a damn thing. All Carolina fans have learned is that his stubborness and "by the book" (a flawed book, to be very clear) mindset will continue to impair their team's chances of raising another championship trophy.

In related news, the Gamecocks play an elimination game this afternoon at 1pm, while Maryland takes the afternoon off as it waits in the regional championship. Decisions matter, and last night, Chad Holbrook showed he stll can't make the right ones when the game is on the line.

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