The final series of a three-series gauntlet for South Carolina baseball has arrived.
First, the Gamecocks swept Kentucky at home. Then they took two of three at LSU last weekend – a huge series win as they continue to chase a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament. Another series victory this weekend at home over Vanderbilt would go a long way toward pushing USC even further into that national seed conversation.
In short, getting a top eight national seed means you are guaranteed to host a best-of-three Super Regional if you advance that far. USC has played in the College World Series six times since the NCAA adopted the Super Regional format. In all but one of those years, 2010, the Gamecocks hosted a Super Regional. In 2010, they had to just travel to Myrtle Beach.
Consider that USC is 5-1 in home Super Regionals, in terms of advancing to the World Series or not, with the exception being 2000, when Louisiana-Lafayette stunned the Gamecocks. In road Super Regionals, they are 1-3, with losses in 2001 at Stanford, 2006 at Georgia and 2007 at North Carolina, in addition to the Myrtle Beach win over Coastal Carolina in 2010.
Vanderbilt is No. 2 in the latest Baseball America top 25, LSU No. 3, USC No. 15, Kentucky No. 23 and Mississippi State No. 22. USC travels to Mississippi State for its final regular season series. USC’s other remaining series is at home against Georgia, whose 4-16 league record is the SEC’s worst. So things will set up nicely for USC if it can win the Vanderbilt series.
The latest NCAA tournament projection by Perfect Game has USC hosting a Regional, but just outside of the top eight national seeds. The No. 8 seed, at this point, is projected to go to Oregon. But USC could work toward changing its standing this weekend, in its biggest home series of the season.
It will not be easy. Vanderbilt is a dangerous offensive team that is hitting .320 in SEC play – 30 points better than the next-closest team, LSU. All of Vanderbilt’s nine regulars are hitting between .399 and .291. Vanderbilt’s Saturday pitcher, sophomore righty Tyler Beede, is 11-0 with a 1.63 ERA, 74 strikeouts and 40 walks. USC coach Chad Holbrook said he is a future first-round pick – and one of several things about the Commodores that makes them dangerous.
“Probably one of the better teams in the country, if not the best,” Holbrook said. “I don’t think there’s a weakness on their team. They have speed, they can hit for some power, they’ve played great defense. They have a 2.58 team ERA. They’ve got a great closer. You’re going to have to have a great approach (at the plate). You’re going to have to try to get some runners in scoring position, because you’re not going to bang the ball around the park on them and extra-base hit them to death. That’s just not the type of pitching staff they are. The realistic thing that scares me to death about this weekend is we can play great and lose. That’s how good Vandy is.
“(Tony) Kemp is gifted (leads Vanderbilt with a .399 average). I’ll be a happy coach when he’s gone. It seems like he’s been there for 19 years. He’s a good player. You’ve got to try to keep him off base. That would be number one. Number two, they put a lot of pressure on you with the short game, with the bunt game, base running. They’ve stolen 99 bases (compared to USC’s 42). You’ve got to try to limit the free passes and try to make them earn their on-base opportunities. I tried like heck to recruit (freshman) Xavier Turner (.311 hitter), and I’ve always thought the world of him as a player. They’re hitting .320 in the league. You want to look at a stat and (have it) tell you a little bit about a team, when you have a team that hits higher in the league than they do overall (.314 for Vanderbilt), it’s a sign that they’re pretty good. Obviously, they are.”
This weekend will be a challenge for USC’s three lefty starters, all of whom have been effective this season – Nolan Belcher, Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop – despite not having overpowering fastballs. That is typical of USC’s pitchers in recent years, though. Holbrook wants guys who can throw strikes above all else.
“Strike throwers have an advantage because it’s tough to hit when you’re behind in the count,” he said. “Regardless of stuff, (Michael) Roth would be the first guy to tell you, if he’s 2-0 and 3-1, he’s going to give up a lot of hits. He didn’t have the stuff to blow people away. Wynkoop is kind of in the same mold, as is Jordan Montgomery, as is Nolan. It’s important for those guys to pitch ahead in the count. They all have the ability to do that. They can locate their pitches, they throw strikes, they work ahead, they can dump any pitch in there in any count.
“They can pitch backward, is what we call it. That means 2-0 changeups, and in fastball counts, throw off-speed pitches. They’re gifted enough to be able to do that. That certainly helps their productivity. Their stuff is not good enough to give people free passes. The fact that they’re throwing strikes is one of the main reasons those three guys are pitching on the weekend. Obviously, it’s a great advantage that they can throw to both sides of the plate and minimize their walks.”
Belcher’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is 65-to-nine. Montgomery’s is 44-to-seven. Wynkoop’s is 27-to-seven.
“We’ve got some power guys,” Holbrook said. “They’ve just struggled throwing strikes, and we haven’t put them out there. Evan Beal has got a great arm (but 34 strikeouts, 14 walks and a 5.19 ERA). He throws 93, 94 mph. (Forrest) Koumas can run it up there pretty good, too (but has 15 strikeouts, 11 walks and a 7.80 ERA). They just haven’t pitched as well as they would like. The guys that have pitched well have just happened to be the strike-throwers, the pitchability guys, the guys that won’t give the opposition free passes. Those are the guys that (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers wants to throw, and I want to throw. You throw strikes, change speeds, keep hitters off balance – we’ve made a living around here with those type of guys.
“I guess the last power arm that we had that started for us was probably (Sam) Dyson (in 2010). Blake Cooper was a pitchability guy. He didn’t have a blazing fastball, but he was as good as anybody on Friday night. Nolan has been terrific for us, Jordan, Jack’s has had two great starts in a row. The name of this game is not how hard you throw. That’s not what it’s about. There’s guys in the Hall of Fame that haven’t thrown 90 mph. The object is to get people out. Those are the kind of guys we try to recruit, best we can.
“I’d love to have a power arm or two, a Ryne Stanek (who pitches for Arkansas) or someone like that, but if you can pitch, you can beat people. I think Roth had a pretty good record against first-round draft picks when he was here and he was throwing it 84 mph. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Luckily we’ve got some guys that are one, left-handed; two, can change speeds; and three, can throw any pitch in any count. That’s a good formula to have in college baseball.”
Said Meyers: “We have some guys that have some decent velocity. Tyler Webb can get in that category, I guess. I guess maybe it’s an indication that our guys have changed speeds well or they’ve pitched to both sides of the plate well at times, as a whole. Not all the time by any means. Developing the secondary pitches that are so important, especially before the bat change where changing speeds and moving the ball around was a big part of having success in this league. That was kind of the emphasis we put on the guys coming in (through recruiting).
“It’s hard to get some of those real hard throwers. They’re either getting eaten up by the pro draft or you get lucky and you hold onto someone that has that kind of power arm. Our guys have usually gained velocity from their freshman year to their second and third years as a whole. But we’ve always emphasized changing speeds and being able to throw changeups at any point in time. Not everybody can do it, but that’s kind of the approach we’ve taken. If the velocity is there, that’s just a bonus.
“Even Nolan Belcher, he was throwing a little harder last weekend but he didn’t have quite as good of command. Sometimes that goes hand in hand. Kip (Bouknight, the 2000 Golden Spikes Award winner) was upper 80s, was 86-88 probably on the average, and would occasionally be a little better than that, but sometimes pitched really well at 85, 86. His deal was deception, movement, changing speeds.”
Some other notes from Holbrook and Meyers …
** When both coaches recruited Wynkoop, he was a tall, lanky kid, and they figured that as a lefty, he would grow into his slender body and develop velocity, as was mentioned in today’s print edition story about Wynkoop.
“I kind of saw him growing up and you saw it in there and you knew that the velocity would probably come. You never know for sure. You project that because the arm action is loose. The frame is what you’re looking for, and think that will fill out as he gets older. He projects really well (going forward). Part of what hopefully will work to his advantage is that he didn’t grow up being a hard thrower. He grew up having to really locate his pitches and change speeds and as he gains some velocity, then he’s already got that little bit ingrained in what he does.
“(His control) has a lot to do with being able to repeat his delivery because he’s athletic enough, he has good balance, he has a good feel for what he’s doing, he’s not trying to do too much, he’s not wrapped up in trying to throw the ball overly extended, he’s not trying to reach back all the time for more velocity. He’s trying to pitch and trying to locate and that’s his priority. If the velocity is there and he’s feeling good, he might have a little better pop sometimes more than others, but his whole key and his focus is to try to locate his pitches and work from there.”
It helps that Wynkoop worked with Gary Lavelle, a well-regarded pitching instructor in Virginia Beach, Va., Wynkoop’s hometown. Meyers said Lavelle has a very good reputation at all levels of baseball.
“I know Gary very well and I imagine he picked up a lot in his development from Gary,” Meyers said. “I think it probably did work to his advantage. (Lavelle) is left-handed and he pitched in the big leagues. It’s instant credibility and it’s just lefty speaking to lefty.”
Said Lavelle: “Working with (Wynkoop) a lot, you could see him getting better every year. I always project guys out of high school to gain three to five miles an hour. If you’re getting a lefty coming out of high school at 85-87, then he’s going to be in the 90s ultimately. When you get a lefty that’s got the size. He touched 89-90 in high school. You could project him as he grew into his body that he was going to be pretty good.”
** Meyers said shortstop Joey Pankake is still working in practice as a pitcher, but you probably won’t see him on the mound unless USC absolutely needs him.
“He’s throwing bullpens and he’s staying ready and he’s just trying to stay sharp,” Meyers said. “There could be an opportunity for him to get in at any point in time and we’re trying to stay ready for that. He’s throwing short bullpens and trying to make sure it doesn’t take anything out of his arm playing defense every day, which is a little bit more of a task to try to manage. He’s ready to go. He could go out there live right now, and stuff-wise, be ready to go. We’re not hesitant to use him, but it probably will be more out of need than it will be just to give him experience.
“He has good command, just from what I’ve seen, and I saw him in high school as well. Where he may not have a lot of movement on his fastball, he should have plus velocity, and he has a good slider and he can show a changeup, but if he’s a short reliever, he might just be a two-pitch guy. We haven’t had him on the (radar) gun. We’re just trying to stay within our comfort zone right now, to know that it looks firm enough to be able to be game-ready. It’s not a deal where we’re putting him on the gun all the time.
“I had him a little bit on the gun last year and in the fall as well, just sitting in maybe the 90, 91 range, 92. He can probably reach back and do a little more than that right now. Game situation, you usually find a little bit more in your back pocket to run up there and he’s probably in that boat, that if he gets out there live, he might jump it up a little bit.
“It’s the most difficult position to play to be a two-way guy, shortstop. The second one is catcher, and we’ve got a catcher (Grayson Greiner) that could probably pitch as well. He was pretty good in high school. Those are the two toughest position to try to manage. That’s part of the reason there’s been a delay on (Pankake) being out there (on the mound) at all for us. If it was a deal last year where we wanted to get him out there, it was hard enough playing shortstop every day as a freshman, then asking him to try to do that on top of it. We didn’t really particularly need him (to pitch last year). We know he can do it, and there will probably be that important time where he will be consistently in the mix, whether it will be slightly this year or at some point in time next year.”
** Second baseman Max Schrock is having a nice second half to his freshman season. In the first half (28 games), he hit .231 with 16 RBI and a home run. In the second half so far (15 games), he is hitting .365 with 15 RBI and three homers.
“He’s had a great second half of the year,” Holbrook said. “I guess it was about a month ago, he was hitting .217 and I was thinking about dropping him into the eight hole. He just put too much pressure on himself to start the year. Since that point, probably before we went to Tennessee, he’s been terrific. He’s been the player we thought Max Schrock was going to be. He’s provided us some stability in the middle of our lineup, gave LB (Dantzler) some protection there. I still like the fact that he’s walked 28 times and only struck out 17. That’s pretty rare for a freshman.
“He’s got a great plate approach. I still have hope he’ll get up there around .300 before the year is out. He’d have to go on a tear to do it, but he’s a .300 hitter. He’ll hit .300 for his career here at South Carolina. I don’t have any doubt about that. You sit here and look at his numbers and say, ‘Well, he’s hitting .276 (for the season) and he’s got four home runs.’ He’s got 12 stolen bases, too. He can do a number of things. He’ll be an all-SEC player before he leaves, and hopefully an All-American. I think he’s that good. He’s finally dug himself out of a hole that he created in the first two months of the season.”
** The importance of having strike throwers, as Holbrook mentioned up above, is underscored by the fact that college hitters have better eyes at the plate – at least some of them.
“You can look at some of our hitters and they chase all the time,” Holbrook said. “Connor Bright, he ain’t trying to walk. He’s swinging. You can throw the ball at the press box, and he’s swinging at it. Other guys are very, very disciplined – Graham Saiko having 27 walks and 12 strikeouts. It’s a gift as a hitter. I tell our hitters all the time, and I don’t mean to be critical toward them, but one of the things that I look at on the scouting report is if I see on the scouting report that one of our hitters is labeled as ‘will chase with two strikes,’ then I don’t think he’s a very good hitter. That’s just my opinion. There’s a gift about not chasing a ball out of the strike zone when you have two strikes. It only comes with instinct and experience.
“That being said, regarding Connor, I want him to swing. That’s why we put him in the lineup. Some guys are just aggressive and they want to hit. Sometimes you have to accept the negative things that might occur because they’re so dadgum aggressive. Having a really good, polished, professional plate approach is very hard. We’ve got a couple guys that have it. Vanderbilt has a number of guys that have it. LSU has a number of guys that have it. Their walk-to-strikeout ratio as a team offensively is incredible (205 walks and 225 strikeouts overall, compared to 218 and 279 for Vanderbilt). The more you play, you tend to have a better plate approach.”
Holbrook said Saiko has USC’s most professional approach at the plate, “just walks to strikeouts when you’re analyzing that and the ability to lay off pitches out of the strike zone. Not saying he’s our best hitter, but he’s very, very gifted at not chasing pitches out of the strike zone.”
With Vanderbilt having a 2.83 ERA in league play, which ranks third in the conference, USC’s plate discipline will be something to watch this weekend. Of the teams USC has played so far, only Arkansas has a better team ERA against SEC opponents – a league-best 1.98.