It’s been a different kind of year, as well, particularly as it relates to the role the junior has assumed and embraced.
Bishop isn’t the oldest player on the Gamecocks’ roster in terms of seniority, but he’s an undisputed leader on a team that begins its quest for an Ohio Valley Conference tournament title today at The Ballpark at Jackson. It’s a role that seems as natural as him camping under a fly ball in the outfield.
“It’s been a fun year, definitely,” Bishop said. “I guess three years into my career everything’s slowed down. I’ve been given an opportunity to step into a leadership role, which is actually where I’m most comfortable at because in high school, the three years I played varsity, I was the leader.
“It’s easy to play when you’ve got a team like this where nobody cares about the individual stats. The only thing anybody cares about is winning the game. It’s just fun and it’s easy to go play when you’re on a team like that.”
To hear Gamecocks coach Jim Case tell it, Bishop wears the leadership role well. He keeps his teammates focused during games and lets the younger players and newcomers know what the situation they’re about to step into demands.
“From a head coach’s standpoint, I probably appreciate the leadership as much or as more as I do the production because he has really taken it upon himself this year to be one of the main leaders on the team,” Case said. “Maybe because of the age of the people — we had an old team last year — he didn’t have to do it (then), but there’s no question he is one of the main leaders on the team.”
But he’s not one of those silent leaders who simply leads by his maturity. He gets things started as the Gamecocks’ leadoff man.
Bishop leads the team in hitting (.354) — at one point this season he was leading the league — and stolen bases (17). He is 17-for-35 in his current eight-game hitting streak and has eight RBIs in the last five. He leads the league in doubles (21) and is tied for the lead in triples (four). He has 23 multi-hit games, including a five-hit effort against preseason favorite Austin Peay. Tuesday night he was named to the All-OVC team along with outfielders Cody Hudson of Austin Peay and Shaun Ball of Eastern Kentucky.
Versatile Coty Blanchard and closer Travis Stout were second-team picks for the Gamecocks, while designated hitter Paschal Petrongolo and reliever Graham Officer were named to the All-Freshman team.
Bishop missed the season-ending doubleheader against Morehead State last Friday after fouling a ball off his ankle the night before, but is expected to be in his customary spot when the tournament opens today.
“In my mind there’s no question he’s one of the best three outfielders in this league,” Case said. “I don’t think there’s anybody more athletic than he is. He plays a good center field. I think in the past you could’ve said maybe his arm is suspect, but that’s not true anymore; he’s worked really hard and is throwing the ball really good. And he’s been a tremendous leadoff man for us.
“He doesn’t steal as many bags as some guys in the league, but we try to steal bags at the right time. We’re not running when we’re behind by eight or ahead by eight. I think he has done what we’ve asked him to do, which is when we need a bag stolen, steal it. Coty (Blanchard), the same way. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the league.”
Today, the fourth-seeded Gamecocks (32-24) open the OVC tournament at 3 p.m. against fifth-seeded Eastern Kentucky (20-32). The Gamecocks took two of three from the Colonels two weeks ago, with Bishop going 9-for-13 in the series with a pair of doubles in all three games.
The tournament shapes up to be one of the most competitive in memory. Each of the top four seeds is a 30-game winner and their order wasn’t determined until the final day of the season. Third-seeded Belmont (37-18) plays No. 6 Southeast Missouri (24-31) in today’s 7 p.m. game.
Tennessee Tech (39-15) and Austin Peay (42-13) are the top two seeds and play the winners today’s games Thursday — after one of today’s losers is eliminated.
“We were talking about it coming back from EKU, it’s going to be the toughest tournament we’ve been a part of,” Bishop said. “We played Auburn. You grow up (respecting) Auburn baseball, Alabama baseball because they (have decorated) football programs; a lot of teams are better than Auburn. Auburn wouldn’t finish in the top four in our league.
“We’ve got a pretty strong top four (in the league) and all four of those teams have at least one good guy to go to the mound. A couple of them have two or three, so it should be pretty interesting.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.