After rough start to 2013 season, Blanchard has Gamecocks perched atop conference standings
by Al Muskewitz
amuskewitz@annistonstar.com
May 03, 2013 | 3549 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville State’s Coty Blanchard is riding a 13-game hitting streak, the longest active run in the Ohio Valley Conference. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
Jacksonville State’s Coty Blanchard is riding a 13-game hitting streak, the longest active run in the Ohio Valley Conference. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
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JACKSONVILLE — Coty Blanchard was thinking about doing something a couple of weeks ago that would seem, well, unthinkable, now.

The versatile Jacksonville State infielder was considering changing his walkup song.

Now, that might not seem like a big deal to some, but ballplayers are a superstitious lot. Just about the time Blanchard was thinking about changing the name of that tune, he got hot at the plate — and so did the Gamecocks. Now, the song that follows the two-sport star to the plate has become something of a team anthem.

It’s an explicit ditty by a rapper named Drake that without the editing to make it suitable for the ballpark would leave administrators with faces as red as the Gamecocks’ batting helmets, the crowd covering fragile ears and game managers running to pull the plug. But the message in the hook is something to rally around.

Started from the bottom, now we’re here

Started from the bottom, now the whole team here

Consider it this generation’s version of “We Are Family.” The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates rode that song all the way to a World Series title.

That wasn’t the aim at first. Blanchard just liked the song.

“Then it kind of started,” Blanchard said. “We kind of lost all these games at the beginning and now we’re right at the top of the conference. I’ve talked about changing it and all the guys are like, ‘No, you can’t change it. You can’t change it. It’s so perfect now.’

“It’s just a good song. I liked it. Then we started winning and stuff and it started sounding really good — ‘Starting from the bottom, now we’re here.’ I was like, wow. I didn’t think anything about it. Then, someone came up to me and said that song kind of makes sense with our team. I was like yeah, you’re right; better leave it, it’s working.”

T-shirts are coming. (No, just kidding.)

“It’s kind of his song now,” shortstop Andrew Bishop said. “Every time we hear it, we know Coty’s coming up and something good’s about to happen.”

The song is kind of Blanchard’s anthem, too. While he wasn’t on the bottom altogether, in the last three weeks of last season he had fallen out of the Gamecocks’ lineup, the rigors of a full campaign as the football team’s starting quarterback finally taking its toll. And this year, he was batting .172 through the first 15 games and had made 10 errors. Today, he’s the hottest player on the team, playing the best ball of his JSU career.

He is riding a 13-game hitting streak — the longest active run in the OVC — and has reached base in 22 straight games. He is hitting .312 with four homers, 28 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. The last time he was 0-for-everything was March 20 at Alabama.

“What he has done has been clutch in almost every way,” Gamecocks coach Jim Case said. “There’s not a fear bone in his body. Whether it be a stolen base or a big hit or getting an inning started, he’s just been clutch. We’ve had a lot of guys do that if you’ve seen the way we’ve won games, but he has probably been our best guy at making something happen at big times.”

As Blanchard has gone, so have the Gamecocks (26-19, 17-4 OVC). They are 10-3 during the hitting streak, 15-7 in the reaching-base run and have risen from third in the preseason conference poll to first place in the actual standings. Going into this weekend’s showdown series with Belmont, they hold a percentage points lead over Tennessee Tech, which has played three more games. They also have a one-game lead over the Bruins (30-12, 16-5). It’s the latest they have held sole possession of the OVC lead since 2008, the last time they won the league.

The way Blanchard has been playing is comparable to his freshman All-America season when he came off a platoon role at quarterback to hit .335 with 78 hits and 32 RBIs. The difference is he has become a more complete hitter, going from a contact hitter to one capable of handling the more complex range of pitches seen by a veteran player with a scouting report and cleanup hitter. Playing in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League helped, as well as a return to platoon role in football.

During the hitting streak, he is 23-for-50, raising his batting average more than 60 points.

“Last year, he was beat up pretty good when he came out here,” Case said. “He’s not a complainer, he didn’t say a word, but he was not the same. He tried to play through it as he would — he’s a team guy — but I really don’t think he completely got over football season last year. This year, he didn’t play as much in football and when he came here he was much more ready to go.”

And willing to take on anything that was thrown at him.

Blanchard came to JSU as an infielder, but lately, he has split time between second base and left field. But at Murray State, right at the start of current hitting streak, he played the last two games of the series at first base.

With no experience there whatsoever, he just asked for a teammate’s first baseman’s mitt and had at it. While also getting some time in those two games at second base and in the outfield, he didn’t make an error in 20 combined chances.

“I think it’s more of a mindset,” he said. “I’m not going to let the team lose. We have to get it done and that’s just much more focus at the plate. I’m not going to let this guy beat me. The team’s counting on me. That’s pretty much what it comes down to.

“You always have to try to stay confident ... but now it’s just loose and free and relaxed and knowing it’s going to come to me.”

As comfortable and focused as Blanchard has been on the field lately, one might assume he has finally found a peace with the football/baseball question that has followed him since he arrived on campus.

He is draft-eligible this June, and that could impact him rejoining the JSU football team as its starting quarterback in the fall.

Right now, he’s settled on returning to play football, but a lot could depend on who and where he gets drafted. As uncertain as that is, he hasn’t spent a lot of time this baseball season thinking what lies beyond this spring.

“It’s not the right time for all that stuff,” he said. “I’m just here day to day trying to win the conference. That’s all I’m worried about. I’m here just doing my job.”

Bishop, one of his closest friends on the team, can attest to that. He says Blanchard is “very locked in to this team and this season.”

Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.
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