**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
With Tyler Johnson returning from injury and Clarke Schmidt resuming his regular spot in the starting rotation, Chad Holbrook feels a sense of normalcy returning to his team.
They it, because things have been anything but normal lately. After a 5-1 start in the SEC, the Gamecocks have lost four of their last six conference games, including two after holding the lead with two outs in the ninth inning.
Then, on Tuesday in Charlotte, South Carolina lost 20-5 to No. 4 North Carolina, further worrying Gamecock fans.
But Holbrook believes his team is still in a good spot and will be fine as it resumes conference play this weekend against Mississippi State.
"I know how some think the world is falling around here, but it isn't," Holbrook said.
South Carolina is 21-11 and 7-5 in the SEC. It trails Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State, all 8-4, by just one game.
"I don't see any sense of kids feeling sorry for themselves or having lost any confidence or anything like that," Holbrook said. "We sit here a game out of first in one of the toughest conferences in the country and we have a top-15 ranking and a top-15 RPI.
"We have a lot to play for and we're going to have to play down the stretch. We would have to play good down the stretch whether we hadn't lost those three games by one pitch or not, you still have to play good down the stretch. We control our own destiny and we have a good team and now we're healthy, so let's go see where we stand."
Johnson, South Carolina's highly regarded closer, missed 20 games with a sore arm but returned Tuesday to retire North Carolina in order in the eighth inning.
Johnson said Thursday he felt fine after pitching for the first time in nearly six weeks and Holbrook is happy to have his closer back, especially after watching his team blow three ninth-inning leads this year and go 10-9 in games decided by three runs or less.
"If we have a one-run lead in the ninth inning tomorrow not, he's getting the ball, and it will be that way pretty much the rest of the year," Holbrook said. "We feel good about our chances when you give a kid like that the ball with the game on the line."
Schmidt, who will start Friday night, said having Johnson back gives the team a big lift.
"When you have a guy like that in the back end of the bullpen, it's special, especially when we have lost a lot of close games toward the end of the game," he said. "… It gives you a little more comfort when you know he can go out there and shut it down."
Schmidt will also return to his regular routine this week. One of 40 players named to the Golden Spikes Midseason Watch List as the nation's best player, Schmidt is normally South Carolina Friday night starter, but he missed a start against Tennessee with an oblique strain and has pitched in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot in the rotation in the past three weeks.
Schmidt (4-0, 1.15) will start Friday night against Mississippi State's Konnor Pilkington (2-3, 3.00). He is happy to be back in his normal spot.
"To be able to go out there on a Friday night is a lot of fun, and going against a top-line guy is always fun for me," Schmidt said. "I take that with honor and I want to go deep in the game and save the bullpen for another day. I take it with pride and I'm excited to be back in that role."
"We're looking forward to getting our rotation back in order and not having to move guys up two or three days or back two or three days," Holbrook said. "There feels like there is some normalcy and some consistency to this weekend, and I hope that will translate to on-field performance," Holbrook said.
After losing two of three to both Auburn and Vanderbilt, South Carolina faces another huge challenge. Mississippi State (23-12, 8-4) is second in the SEC in hitting at .299 and features one of the best hitters in the country. Outfielder Brent Rooker leads the SEC in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.450), on-base percentage (.547), slugging (.992), home runs (15) and RBI (56). He also leads the league in stolen bases with 15.
"He's two or three levels above anybody who is playing. It's like he's play slow-pitch softball with the numbers he's pouting up," Holbrook said. "We will have to extremely careful with how we treat him and how we pitch to him and pick our spots. and hopefully he doesn't come up with the game on the line."
While South Carolina will counter with one of the best staring rotations in the country — it is fourth in the SEC with a 3.25 team ERA — it must pick up the pace offensively. The Gamecocks are ninth in the SEC with a .276 batting average and ninth in runs scored.
While MSU features four hitters batting over .320, South Carolina has just three batting over .300. LT Tolbert leads the team at .324 while Jonah Bride is hitting .306 and Chris Cullen .303. The rest of the Gamecock lineup has slumped in recent weeks. Particularly troubling is a rash of strikeouts by key hitters.
Holbrook has tinkered with his batting order all season, but the recent struggles have him contemplating some lineup changes.
"We have some guys who need to do a little better, and they understand that," Holbrook said. "We can become a much more formidable offense. … I'm disappointed in that and they understand that.
"When you strike out quite a bit and you don't hit for a high average, you got to look at your other options. So something's got to give."
Having lost five of its last seven games, Holbrook knows this is a big weekend for his team.
"We are going to be challenged in a big-time way. We're going to have to play well," he said. "We are going to have to play our best baseball."