By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
When Alex Destino hit one of the longest home runs of his career Wednesday, he didn't see where it landed.
He was looking down, letting out a long, heavy sigh of relief.
"Finally I can breathe," Desinto said. "I've just been putting a lot of pressure on myself. Just not playing nearly up to my capabilities. When stuff like that happens and goes my way, I just can kinda breathe and see all my teammates smiling."
Destino, a junior from Weaverville, N.C., hit .321 last season and led the Gamecocks with 10 home runs and 59 RBI. He entered the season as a preseason All-SEC pick and rated the No. 48 college prospect in the country.
He started strong, leading the Gamecocks in RBI in the first half of the season, but has been struggling of late, watching his average dip to .255. His 34 strikeouts in 149 at-bats are second on the team.
Destino has been struggling so badly he was benched in the three-game series last weekend against Kentucky, making just one pinch-hit appearance as seniors Ross Grosvenor and John Jones entered the lineup and gave the Gamecocks a big lift.
Destino was back in the lineup Wednesday against Wofford and looked like he was making progress on getting his swing back. He reached on an error on a hard-hit ball in the first inning and then slugged a long home run over the right-field fence in the bottom of the eighth.
"It's about time," said Destino, who hit his first home run in 14 games. "It's finally nice to get behind one and see it fly over the fence. It's been awhile."
Destino not only needed the home run to restore his confidence but to regain the confidence of head coach Chad Holbrook, who made the tough decision to bench the veteran player during his struggles.
"I love Alex, he's a really good kid and he's a good hitter and has done a lot of good things for us. He's just putting entirely too much pressure on himself lately," Holbrook said.
"It's good to see. I saw him take a deep breath when he rounded first and probably exhaled and felt a lot of relief."
Sitting out was hard on Destino, a highly recruited player who enjoyed a breakout season last year and was expected to be South Carolina's leading run producer again this season. His slide has coincided with South Carolina's struggles as it lost 11 of its last 19 games and 10 of 15 in the SEC.
"I hated it. I'm not going to lie, I hated having to sit," Destino said. "Obviously, I can't argue with coach. I haven't been playing up to my capability and he put Ross and John in and they had big at-bats throughout the weekend. I couldn't be more happy for those guys, but it's something I take on myself. I have to start playing better so I don't give coach the option of putting someone else in there.
"Thank God for that last one, it gives me some confidence."
Destino has been working hard during battling practice with assistant coaches Stuart Lake and Sammy Esposito. A big part of his problem, he said, is his approach at the plate.
"Just not trusting my approach when I get in the box … just getting in there and not really having a goal or a plan," he said. "In batting practice, we have kinda been setting out a lot of set rounds for things I should do and work my swing in that regard."
Though he has worked on situational hitting, Destino says the best approach for him is to simplify things and go back to basics. Like hitting for power and driving the ball.
"Honestly, when it comes down to it, I'm a firm believer you have to see the ball and hit the ball and just swing hard," he said. "I just went back to that, just back to the basics, just relax and play like you are in middle school and just try to hit the ball as far as you can. That last one was a big swing for me."
He hopes his sixth home run of the season gets him back into the lineup this weekend for a big series at LSU. If he is back, it leaves Holbrook with some tough decisions to make. With Grosvenor, Jones and Riley Hogan swinging the bat well in the last four games, and freshman Carlos Cortes leading the team in hitting in SEC play, it may be tough to get Destino back in the lineup.
But with the team needing all the offense it can get, that's a good problem to have.
"It's tough right now. Some other guys are playing well, but I think Alex is one of our better players. He just hasn't been performing of late," Holbrook said. "Hopefully that home run gets him going. … Hopefully he can just relax and be Alex Destino and that will make our team better."