The Daily Gamecock

Gamecocks eye Johnson's return as potential turning point

It's hard to feel optimistic about losing consecutive weekend series, but South Carolina managed to stay just one game behind Auburn in the SEC East with a win over Vanderbilt in the series finale.

All but two of the Gamecocks' losses this season have come in one-run games or in extra-inning affairs. They suffered both of those fates this weekend in their first two contests with Vanderbilt.

"We're two games over .500 after some helter-skelter things that went on," South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook said.

Holbrook views Saturday's win as a potential turning point in South Carolina's season.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Holbrook said. "But I have a good feeling that we'll look back in late May and June and say that [Saturday] against Vanderbilt was the biggest win of the year."

Perhaps the biggest factor driving Holbrook's positive outlook is the return of his All-American closer.

South Carolina reliever Tyler Johnson has been plagued by arm soreness since he was first sidelined on March 4 against Clemson. Over the weekend he was cleared by South Carolina's training staff and Holbrook said that he could potentially be used for an inning against North Carolina on Tuesday.

“We’ll get Tyler [Johnson] back this week, and next weekend he’ll be full-go, ready to go,” Holbrook said. “Maybe TJ [Hopkins]’s hammy and Chris [Cullen]’s knee will get better and maybe we’ll be 100 percent for the first time all year come this week.”

Johnson struck out 12 batters in the 6 2/3 innings he pitched this season before being shut down. Over the summer he pitched for the Collegiate National Team.

The right-handed power pitcher is regarded as one of the most valuable high-leverage relievers in the country. His fastball has registered as high as 99 mph this season and he brings an intimidating presence to the mound that is amplified by the use of sirens from "The Purge" as his entrance theme.

The Gamecocks pen is built around a nucleus of reliable veteran relievers like Colie Bowers, Reed Scott and Josh Reagan, but Johnson's ability to consistently miss bats in high-leverage situations makes him more of a prototypical option with the game on the line.

That was evident in Friday's 13-inning affair where the Gamecocks held a lead with two outs in the ninth inning before Vanderbilt tied the game on a pinch-hit single. Julian Infante later connected for a home run in the 13th inning off of Scott to secure the Commodores' victory.

"I'm not docking anybody on this team," left fielder Alex Destino said. "But when Tyler Johnson runs on the mound, it's different when he runs out there."

The Gamecocks will look to avenge last year's 15-0 loss to North Carolina at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte on Tuesday. They will host Mississippi State over the weekend.