**Story by Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth and Allen Sharpe**
Though the South Carolina baseball team lost a nail-biter Sunday, it had a successful opening weekend, winning the series against a solid UNC Greensboro team.
There were some developments for Gamecock fans to be excited about — like dominant pitching — and some things to be concerned about.
Here's a look at what we learned on South Carolina's opening weekend:
Chad Holbrook is still experimenting with his lineup, but he may have found two new everyday starters in the opening series.
Sophomores Danny Blair and Jacob Olson may have played their way into the lineup against UNCG. Blair, who played sparingly as a freshman, led the Gamecocks in hitting, going 6-for-11 with two RBI and two runs scored. Olson, a junior college transfer, was second, going 4-for-9 with two runs scored.
Blair played left field and center, while Olson played right field and first base. Blair flashed his glove in the outfield and his speed on the base paths, with a stolen base on Sunday. Olson demonstrated some power in Game 3, barely missing a home run and hitting another drive to the deepest part of the ballpark.
Holbrook liked what he saw.
"They certainly played like they want to be in there every day," he said. "I thought they gave us our best at-bats consistently all weekend long. They certainly didn't give me a reason to take them out. I love their energy and I love their athleticism. They have the intangibles I want in our lineup."
Blair, who was moved into the second spot in the lineup on Sunday, was pleased with the way he played.
"I got a few good swings on it this weekend and I felt confident coming into the season from the scrimmages," the sophomore from Bel Air, Md. said. "I'm pretty happy with how I played, but we still have a lot of really good players on our team and a lot of competition and whoever is playing the best at the time will probably play. But after this weekend, I am pretty confident going forward."
Holbrook plans to continue to tinker with his lineup in week two. JC transfer Justin Row and freshmen Carlos Cortes and Riley Hogan got at-bats on Saturday, and Row pinch hit on Sunday. The Gamecocks scored seven runs on opening day and five on Saturday, but failed to get timely hits in a 1-0 loss on Sunday.
"I've got to find our best team," Holbrook said. "I've got 12 or 13 I really want to play but I've got to find the right nine to put in there on a consistent basis. There is not much separation between some of those guys."
Heart of the order
Alex Destino, who had 10 homers and a team-high 59 RBIs in 2016, got off to a strong start. He had two hits in each of the first two games and knocked in four runs. He struggled on Sunday, though, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, including one with a runner on third.
But the Gamecocks' most powerful hitter needs protection and help in the middle of the lineup. The fourth, fifth and sixth hitters struggled throughout the weekend. Chris Cullen and Madison Stokes were a combined 2-for-18 with no RBI, while John Jones, Cullen and Justin Row went a collective 0-for-4 from the clean-up spot on Sunday.
"The biggest question coming out of the weekend is who is going to be the middle-of-the-lineup type guy," Holbrook said. "Somebody has got to step up other than Destino. That's what I'm going to work hard to try to find in the next seven to 14 days."
Look for Olsen and first baseman Matt Williams, who had two hits in two starts, to get a look in those spots.
If opening weekend is a fair indication, the Gamecock pitching staff is every bit as good as advertised. Starters Clark Schmidt, Will Crowe and Adam Hill were all dominant, giving up just one earned run and striking out 17 over 18.2 innings. Hill allowed just one hit on Sunday.
The Gamecock bullpen was equally impressive. Reed Scott, Colie Bowers and Josh Reagan combined to allow just three hits and one unearned run with 10 strikeouts over 8.1 innings.
And it's not like they were pitching against a weak team. UNCG led the nation in hitting and slugging last season and return most of its lineup. The Spartans, 38-21 last year, were picked to win the Southern Conference this year.
"They are a good hitting team. They led the nation in hitting last year, and slugging percentage, but our pitching staff was phenomenal all weekend long," Holbrook said.
The Gamecocks have a tough schedule this week, with a Tuesday game against a tough UNC Charlotte team and a Thursday game against Kansas State before a weekend series against Wright State, which just took two of three from Clemson. Holbrook was not sure Sunday who would get the midweek starts. Among the possibilities are freshman Cody Morris and junior Brandon Murray.
Smooth in the field
The Gamecocks were also strong on defense, committing just two errors during the three-game series and turning three double plays. They looked particularly smooth in the infield, led by slick-fielding shortstop Madison Stokes, who has looked good at a position where South Carolina is always strong.
"We played really solid defense," Holbrook said. "We were clean. We pitched and played defense."
Home sweet home
South Carolina was blessed with beautiful weather for the opening three-game series, and the Gamecock faithful turned out. Games 1 and 2 at Founders Park were sold out — the 49th and 50th sellouts since the park opened in 2009 — and Game 3 came close, drawing 8,017 fans.
With one of the most beautiful stadiums in the country and a strong fan base, it's no wonder South Carolina is near the top in attendance every year.