By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Chad Holbrook had his eye on Carlos Cortes for several years before the freshman outfielder arrived on campus.
He knew what he was getting if he could get the highly-touted hitter from Florida in a Gamecock uniform.
"He came here to camp when he was in the eighth grade and was hitting them in the street," Holbrook said.
Five years later, Cortes is still hitting them into the street, launching home runs over the right-field fence at Founders Park and becoming a fixture in the South Carolina lineup.
The true freshman from Oviedo, Fla. has worked his way into the lineup full-time, starting the last 12 games and emerging as one of South Carolina's most consistent and impactful hitters.
After a slow start, Cortes is hitting .286 with four home runs and 17 RBI, with a .349 OBS and slugging .506. He has heated up when most freshman begin to struggle, putting together a hot streak in SEC play.
Of his 17 RBI, 15 have come in the last 14 games. he hit .333 against Vanderbilt, and then had a huge series last weekend against Mississippi State, slugging three home runs, including two in one game. He knocked in all four runs with a pair of two-run homers in a 5-4 loss on Saturday, and then tied the Sunday game with another homer.
"He's always been a gifted hitter," Holbrook said. "He's swinging the way he's capable and he's not trying to put too much pressure on himself. He knows he's going to be in there every day, and maybe that helps too.
"You are seeing what kind of hitter he is. That bodes well for us if we can get some other guys going."
Cortes, who was drafted in the 20th round by the Yankees last year, was considered one of the best hitters in the country in high school. He hit .395 as a senior as was rated the No. 2 prospect in Florida by Perfect Game and the No. 18 prospect in the country by D1 Baseball.
Despite being a highly-touted recruit, Cortes struggled a bit in the fall and played only sparingly in South Carolina's first 24 games. But with the Gamecocks struggling at the plate, Holbrook has used him as the regular DH and a part-time outfielder in the past 12 games. He excelled since moving into the No. 2 spot in the batting order.
"Just looking for pitches to drive and capitalizing on the opportunity that I'm getting right now," Cortes says.
"He's an extremely talented kid and he works hard," junior shortstop Madison Stokes said after Cortes' big series against Mississippi State. "He's very competitive. He's a perfectionist and he likes to work. And when he doesn't succeed, he's just so competitive and passionate about the game it just keeps him going and getting ready for that next at-bat. He does a good job at that, as a freshman."
Cortes, who should play a key role in another big SEC series this weekend at Florida, has a simple approach, both at the plate and on the team.
"I just come out here every day and work hard and not really expecting (anything), just trying to see results," he said.
Cortes says it was difficult struggling and sitting out early in the season, but his patience and perseverance has paid off.
"It's been tough, but you've just got to see through it and know that it is going to work if you stick to it and trust the process," he said. "(My confidence) definitely has grown since the fall. I was struggling then, but I always try to stay a positive hitter and positive in life in general."
Cortes has not only provided a spark to the Gamecock offense, he has picked up a nickname. Known as "Little Bambino" by his AAU team, he is now called "Boogie," a nickname coined by first baseman Matt Williams.
Cortes has no idea about the origin of the name, but says. "I like it, it's a cool name."
Perhaps it's because Cortes plays all-out and has brought some renewed energy to the Gamecock dugout.
"I just love feeding energy to these guys," Cortes says. "That's what it is really about, just feeding each other energy and just living off of that."
Now that he has gotten into a groove and figured out Division 1 pitching, Cortes is expected to remain in the Gamecock lineup and to develop into one of the program's best players. Holbrook has used him in the outfield on occasion and has big plans for the true freshman.
"He's a fixture," Holbrook said. "He's more than just a good hitter. He runs the bases well, and he doesn't get enough credit for the type of baseball player he is. I am just now seeing some things that I didn't really know because he wasn't playing every day, the way he runs the bases, the way he thinks the game.
"It's been nice to see. I'm mad at myself for not having him in there and sticking with him when he was struggling a little bit earlier in the year. He has got great instincts. It's nice we are going to have him around a couple of years."