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Freshman Carlos Cortes providing Gamecocks with needed spark

April 19, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA — Carlos Cortes came to South Carolina baseball camp as an eighth-grader, and pounded home runs onto the street beyond the right-field fence. Now he’s doing the same thing as a member of the Gamecocks.

The highly-touted freshman from Oviedo, Fla., carried South Carolina’s offense last weekend, hitting three homers in two days against Mississippi State. Now he returns to his home state with a spot in USC’s everyday lineup, and trying to help the Gamecocks break a skid of three straight SEC series losses beginning Thursday at No. 15 Florida.

“He’s just swinging the way he’s capable of,” USC head coach Chad Holbrook said. “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’re seeing what kind of hitter he is. That bodes well for us if we can get some other guys going.”

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At one point last weekend against the Bulldogs, Cortes was responsible for five straight USC runs — he hit two homers to drive in all four the Gamecocks scored in a Saturday loss, and went deep again for the first run in USC’s victory Sunday. This from a freshman who struggled at first to catch up to college pitching, and started just two games until late March.

Since then, he hasn’t come out. His average has climbed to .286, fifth-best among USC’s regulars, and he leads the Gamecocks in slugging percentage. His four homers and 17 RBI rank third and fourth, respectively, on the team.

“You’ve just got to see it through, and know it’s going to work if you stick to it,” Cortes said. “You trust the process, it will work out.”

A top-100 prospect who stuck with his commitment to USC after the Mets drafted him in the 20th round, Cortes can bat and field as either a righty or a lefty, ambidexterity encouraged by a father who wanted him to become more versatile. He started 10 straight games at designated hitter before playing the outfield Tuesday against Davidson.

“He doesn’t get enough credit for the type of baseball player he is,” Holbrook said. “And I’m 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, because he’s a gifted player.”

One who brings a spark to USC (23-13, 8-7) both at the plate and in the dugout. “I just love feeding energy to these guys,” Cortes said. The Gamecocks will need it this weekend at Florida (25-12, 8-7), where they go for their first conference series victory since late March.

“The game comes easy to him, and he thinks it every step of the way,” Holbrook said. “He’s got great instincts when it comes to playing the game of baseball. He was labeled as just a hitter only, and you look at his body, and you think he’s just a hitter. He does more than just hit. It’s nice that we’re going to have him around a couple of years.”