Williams emerging as Gamecocks' best hitter, key player

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth**

After the first inning of a South Carolina baseball game, it's not unusual to see three or more players huddled in the corner of the Gamecock dugout. 

They are usually huddled around Matt Williams, picking his brain and listening to him analyze and dissect the starting pitcher. Williams, a junior first baseman, has become highly skilled at recognizing a pitcher's repertoire and breaking down his approach. 

"Intellectually, he's very, very sound as a hitter," head coach Chad Holbrook says of Williams. "There's a lot of battle there when (he's) in the batter's box. He thinks the game … and he understands the game, and he's putting that to use right now."

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Williams, who played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, has emerged as South Carolina's best hitter, batting a team-high .413 through the Gamecocks' first 16 games. He has started 12 of 16 games at first base, a position that has always produced big offensive numbers for the Gamecocks, and has settled into the third spot in the lineup. 

More importantly, he's having an impact on other Gamecock hitters. After his first at-bat in a game, Williams goes back to the dugout and talks to other hitters about what he has seen from the starting pitcher. 

"I tell (Alex) Destino to watch me, watch my at-bats, and other lefties like Danny (Blair) and LT (Tolbert), watch what he does to me, he's probably going to do the same things to y'all," Williams says. 

"He loves talking about hitting," Destino says. "We'll sit down there in the corner of the dugout with our coaches, especially us being left-handed and middle-of-the-lineup guys, we like to pick each other's brain. Just 'what did you see, what did this pitch look like, what did he throw you in an 0-2 count?'"

Destino, a junior who leads the team with three home runs and 14 RBI, has benefitted from those conversations and from hitting behind Williams. 

"I enjoy watching him and getting the opportunity to see how they are pitching him, and that's how I can see my at-bats coming," Destino said. "Having that makes me a better hitter."

That Williams has emerged as a key player for South Carolina is a testament to his perseverance. An all-state player from Belton-Honea Path High School in Upstate South Carolina, Williams redshirted his freshman season. He got just nine at-bats in 2015 and hit .240 in 25 plate appearances last season. With Kyle Martin and then Destino ahead of him at first base, Williams didn't get much playing time. 

But he stuck with the program and finally got his chance this season. A strong performance in the fall made him the frontrunner at first with Destino moving to the outfield and DH. He split time early with freshman Riley Hogan, but has developed into one of South Carolina's most important players. 

"He has been in a tough spot with some of the first baseman playing in front of him, but he bought into this program ever since he got here," said Destino, a highly touted recruit who played as a freshman. "Coach has been telling him to wait his time, you're going to play, you're going to play. He could have transferred, he could have left, he could have quit, but he is here and right now he's the best hitter on our team." 

Williams entered the program three years after South Carolina's back-to-back national championship seasons and two years after its last College World Series appearance. He tried to remain patient and wait his turn at a position that has produced such major leaguers as Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak and minor leaguers Martin and Christian Walker. 

"From the start, Holbrook told me I was going to be a big part of the program eventually and I just was patient and trusted him and now it's kinda paying off," Williams said. "I just wanted to be part of the team really and eventually he gave me a shot."

Holbrook is glad he did. Williams has gotten better the more he has played. He leads the team in on-base percentage (.500) and is second in slugging (.522). He is sixth in the SEC in both batting average and on-base percentage. 

After taking over the starting job at first, Williams put together a 12-game hitting streak with four multi-hit games and has reached base in 14 straight. After the hitting streak was snapped against Michigan State, he came back the next day and went 3-for-5 with his first home run in a win over the Spartans.

Williams gives credit for his high baseball IQ to his father, Steve Williams, who has more than 500 wins as the head coach at BHP.

"It just kinda comes from him and just having a feel for the game," Matt said. "Reading balls in the dirt and knowing what the pitcher is trying to do and not getting yourself out and just going up there and have a good approach every time." 

Williams has been particularly adept this season at hitting the ball to the opposite field, a sign of a smart hitter and a sound approach in an age when most teams apply a shift against left-handed hitters. He also has developed into a good hitter with two strikes, which makes him a tough out. 

"It makes him tough to pitch to," Holbrook said. "You really don't know how to attack him."

Williams learned his approach, he said, from watching other left-handed hitters. 

"Ninety percent of the pitches we get are off the plate, away, so I just try to get on the dish and try to serve the ball to the other side of the field and use the whole field," he said. "There are a lot of hits on the left side for me, so I try to use (every bit) of it. I try to use the whole field and just work the count. And I don't mind hitting with two strikes."

Williams' ability to dissect pitchers and adjust was on display in Game 2 of the series against Michigan State. He singled off right-hander Ethan Landon in the first inning and then grounded out against senior left-hander Joe Mockbee. In his second at-bat against Mockbee, he hit the fourth pitch over the right-field fence. 

"The previous at-bat he threw me about six straight sliders," Williams said after the game. "I didn't really get to see his fastball arm slot. Then the second at-bat, he started me off with a fastball and then he went slider and then fastball again, and then he hung me a slider. I was pretty much just sitting on slider the whole at-bat because I saw it a good bit the previous at-bat. I was just able to put a good swing on it." 

Williams has had a lot of good swings so far this season. He's not only developed into a key player, but one his teammates look to for leadership and knowledge.

"He believes in himself and his teammates believe in him," Holbrook said. "They understand how he plays and the knowledge that he has. He's one of our best coaches in the dugout. It's been neat to watch him grow.

"I hope our other guys are watching Matt, watching his approach and how he plays the game because you can learn something from the way he competes and battles in the batter's box."

They are. 

"He's just got a great work ethic," pitcher Wil Crowe said. "It's crazy to see where he started and now where he is and how he's progressing. He's tireless. He's in there working on his swing with Busch (assistant coach Brian Buscher), working in the cages, working in the weight room, he's a great worker. And on top of that, he's a great teammate." 

Williams' development makes Holbrook wonder if maybe he waited too long to get him into the lineup. 

"Maybe we should have been playing him a lot more before now. Maybe we should have been playing him a lot more last year," he said. "Sometimes you don't know until you put a kid in the game for a consistent period of time. But boy, he is really playing well."

Williams finally got his turn, and he's making the most of it.

"It's a little bit surreal," he said. "I'm just trying to take it all in and just do the little things right every single day and just repeat it and keep the same approach and just battle every time I am in there."