By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
HOOVER, Ala. — Missouri junior Trey Harris has hit 12 home runs this season, including three in one game.
He's one of the most dangerous hitters in the SEC Tournament. But he's never seen what he saw Thursday from South Carolina freshman Carlos Cortes, who hit two three-run home runs in the Gamecocks' 10-2 win over Missouri in an elimination game.
"I think anyone as young as he is, to do what he did, I tip my cap," Harris said. "(Twelve) home runs for a freshman is crazy. The first time I ever saw power like that from myself was my junior year. I'm 21. This kid is 18 doing big-boy things."
Cortes, the true freshman who has emerged as South Carolina's most dangerous hitter, hit two of the Gamecocks' four home runs Thursday. Alex Destino and Jonah Bride also went deep as South Carolina pounded out 14 hits against a Missouri team that beat them twice just two weeks ago.
But Cortes was the star of the show and, so far, the star of the SEC Tournament. He homered in his first SEC Tournament game on Tuesday, and then hit two more Thursday. His two home runs and six RBI tied the SEC Tournament record (which was broken in the very next game by Arkansas' Chad Spanberger). He was the first Gamecock to his two home runs at the SEC Tournament since Phil Disher in 2008.
The two homers Thursday — one in the fifth inning and another in the four-run sixth — came after he had been walked six times coming into his third game of the tournament.
"Just impressive," said Missouri head coach Steve Bieser. "The young man stands in the box and you can really tell he's got a mature approach. It's tough to fool him. …
"He's just a tough out. You take a freshman and put him in the three hole in the middle of the lineup, you know he is a special kid."
South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook and his teammates are not surprised. They have seen Cortes emerge as South Carolina's biggest threat after breaking into the lineup in SEC play. He had a team-high nine home runs coming into the conference tournament.
"The nation is getting to see what a gifted hitter Carlos Cortes is," Holbrook said. "He's certainly a fun player to watch and one of the more gifted hitters I've ever had the pleasure to coach."
"For pitchers for the rest of this tournament and going into next year, good luck," said Destino, a junior who has 10 home runs this year and 20 the past two seasons. "He's a very confident hitter, a very good sound hitter for a freshman. It's been very exciting to watch. He's given a lot of good excitement and energy to our team throughout the year, especially with this recent surge. He chose a great time to do it."
Cortes hit his first home run with Danny Blair and Justin Row on base to give South Carolina a 6-1 lead. He hit a hanging change-up into the pine trees beyond the right-field wall.
His second one came with Blair and Row on base again and put South Carolina up 10-1. This time he hit a good fastball down in the zone, driving it over the right-center field wall.
"For him to put a good swing like that on a ball that was down and be able get it out of the park like this, when the wind wasn't blowing crazy, I tip my cap," Harris said. "It was his day, he earned it."
"I was just looking for a pitch to drive, and I got it," Cortes said. "I wasn't really trying to hit a home run, just trying hit it in the gap to keep the bats moving and put more runs on the board."
Carlos Cortes and Alex Destino/Photo by Jeff Owens
Holbrook likes to tell people how Cortes was hitting home runs like that at South Carolina baseball camp when he was in middle school and high school. What he is most proud of now, though, is how Cortes has matured this season and improved his plate approach.
"All he needed to do was to get confident and get comfortable," Holbrook said. "Early in the season he wasn't comfortable and was chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Now he is comfortable and doing well and you can see his swing is as beautiful a swing as you will see anywhere in pro or college. He's swinging it the way he's capable of swinging it."
The Gamecocks are finally swinging as a team they way they are capable. They hit three home runs and a big two-run double by Destino in a thrilling 11-inning win over Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
Then, in another must-win game on Thursday, they pounded out four more home runs and five extra-base hits. Destino and Blair both went 3-for-4, while Cortes and Row each had two hits.
After the recent power surge, they have hit 57 home runs this season, the most in the BBCOR era.
"I've always felt we were a better offensive team that we have shown all year," said Holbrook, whose team is fighting to make the NCAA Tournament after a disappointing regular season. "I don't think two games proves we're a good offensive team but I was expecting to see some flashes of this throughout the season.
"I think guys have finally relaxed and taken a good a deep breath. They just kinda rallied around each other and said we are not going to go out not playing our best baseball. We are going to fight to the bitter end, and I'm proud of seeing them do that."
Destino said the team gained confidence after hitting three home runs Tuesday at a ballpark typically known as "the graveyard," where home runs go to die.
"We heard coming in that it's a graveyard. Having that good first game, some guys seeing the ball leave the park instilled confidence them," he said. "If you hit a ball hard here, it can reward you. Just guys being confident and going up there trying to find pitches they can drive, and just not wanting to lose and doing everything we can to put runs on the board."
That never-say-die attitude is fueling the offensive outburst, especially for players like the fiery Cortes.
"I'm seeing the ball pretty well, but it's more for my team," he said. "We don't want to lose and we don't want this to end."