Friday’s sold-out South Carolina baseball opener against Liberty will be a passing of the torch, of sorts. Before the 3 p.m. game, starting at 2:35, USC will honor former coach Ray Tanner, who is now the school’s athletic director. Then Tanner’s top assistant for the past four seasons, Chad Holbrook, will debut as the Gamecocks’ head coach.
“In many ways, it probably will be an emotional day and is certainly is going to be emotional for me for a lot of reasons,” Holbrook said Thursday afternoon. “But one of the main reasons is because of what we have in store for coach Tanner. He’s meant so much to this university and baseball program and it’s time we start the process of giving back, and we’re going to start that tomorrow.
“At the end of the day, it’s a baseball game. Our kids, as much as they respect and love coach Tanner, they’re not going to forget we have a game to play tomorrow. I’ve got to make sure they don’t get too caught up in what happens before the game, because it’s going to be a special time for this baseball program and some of the players that played for coach and all of the coaches that coached with coach.
“I think it’s even fitting that we’re having this day on a day that Jim Toman brings his Liberty team in here because coach Toman played for coach Tanner (at North Carolina State) and worked side-by-side with coach for a long period of time (at N.C. State and USC). That makes it even more special. It’s going to be an emotional day. I’m worried about (the players) being too excited, not not ready to go.”
Holbrook’s Opening Day starters will be as follows …
LHP Jordan Montgomery, So.
1B LB Dantzler, Sr.
2B Max Schrock, Fr.
SS Joey Pankake, So.
3B Chase Vergason, Sr.
LF Graham Saiko, Fr.
CF Tanner English, So.
RF TJ Costen, So.
C Grayson Greiner, So.
DH Erik Payne, Jr.
Closer Tyler Webb, Sr.
Montgomery will begin the season as USC’s No. 1 starter, replacing Michael Roth, who is one of the most successful postseason pitchers in college baseball history.
Dantzler moves over from third base, so that Schrock (a promising hitter) and Vergason (last year’s second baseman) can both get on the field. Pankake returns at shortstop.
Saiko replaces English, who slides to his natural position in centerfield, a spot occupied last season by Evan Marzilli. Costen replaces Adam Matthews in right.
Greiner is back after starting last season. Payne is going to start the season as the full-time designated hitter, a change in Holbrook’s plan to hit Payne against left-handed pitchers and sophomore Kyle Martin against righties.
And Webb takes over for Matt Price – who, like Roth, is a College World Series legend – as the Gamecocks’ closer, at least for now.
That’s the rundown on how things look entering Opening Day. Here now, some thoughts from Holbrook on how the roster ended up shaking out during preseason practices …
** Montgomery got the nod as Opening Day starter over senior righty Colby Holmes, who will throw Saturday. But Holbrook said Holmes could very well become the Friday guy.
“I look at Colby and Jordan the way I look at (catchers) Grayson (Greiner) and Dante (Rosenberg). We’ve got two starting catchers, and we’ve got two Friday night guys. Nothing really separated Jordan and Colby. They’ve both pitched extremely well since August. They both deserve to go Friday. Who knows? Colby might go next Friday. But we’re going to start this way. We’ve got complete confidence in both of them. It was nothing on the field that separated one from another. “
** Holbrook knew Montgomery and Holmes were going to be his Friday and Saturday guys, at least in some order, but his Sunday spot was up in the air. After watching preseason practices, Holbrook decided to go, for now, with fifth-year senior lefty Nolan Belcher over freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop. The coaches feel like Belcher is 100 percent back from Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him for all of 2011. He pitched last season, but didn’t have a major role.
“Nolan came in here and was a weekend starter for us in 2009 (as a freshman), had some big games for us. He beat Arkansas here (four hits and a run in 8 1/3 innings). He went on the road and pitched a great game at Ole Miss (complete game one-run nine-hitter), beat Georgia here in a big game to end the season (three hits and no earned runs in 6 1/3 innings). That was before his injury.
“This is the first time that we think he’s back from injury, not only from his elbow, and he had a little ankle issue last year, but also his confidence is back. We think you’re going to see the Nolan Belcher that was given a weekend spot in the rotation back in 2009. Can’t be more thrilled and happy for him. He deserves it.
“Wynkoop has done nothing to lose anything. He hasn’t lost the Sunday spot or the weekend spot. Wynkoop, in fact, the first weekend in January, when we came back, (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers and I had a discussion about pitching Wynkoop in the bullpen anyway, and that was before Nolan had pitched so well this spring. We’re very, very comfortable with either Nolan or Jack in the bullpen.
“Jack throws strikes, he’s got a great pickoff move, he fields his position well. He has some attributes and traits that you want at the end of a game. We feel confident putting him in there in some tough, difficult situations. Jack’s going to get his opportunities to start some games. He’s not a quote bullpen guy for the rest of the year. He’s still going to be looked at as a starter.”
** With Belcher starting and Webb closing, that leaves Wynkoop, junior righty Forrest Koumas and sophomore righty Joel Seddon as middle relief candidates. Koumas is coming off offseason elbow surgery, to fix an injury that nagged him throughout last season.
“Forrest will be in an important role. He’s one of our pleasant surprises. In eight scrimmages that we had, coach Meyers has done a terrific job with him of smoothing out his delivery. I think he’s a lot more polished, he’s a lot more under control, he’s a lot more confident. His velocity is up. It gives me great comfort in knowing that we have Forrest Koumas toward the end of the game right now. I think that’s how we’re going to use him right now.
“But I also know that Forrest Koumas has started a game in the national championship series, too, so he’s got some experience. I think right now, his confidence is at an all-time high. Last year, he wasn’t healthy. This year, at least right now, he’s healthy. I think he’s going to be a big-time contributor for us this year.”
** Webb has pitched very well in Omaha for three straight years and had a 1.56 ERA last season, but he hasn’t started since April of 2011. Why is he better as a reliever?
“Tyler wants to pitch in relief. He just feels comfortable pitching in relief. His numbers have been terrific. He’s certainly our closer. If we’re in a one-run game tomorrow in the ninth inning, and Tyler hasn’t pitched yet, we’re calling on Tyler to get the last three outs. Experience, he throws strikes, confidence.
“We’re very comfortable putting him in there and he’s earned that right. That being said, he’s closing tomorrow. He might not be our closer (later in the season). We might find a more important role for him. Who knows? He has started games here. All options are on the table early this year, but we’ll start the season with Tyler Webb being our closer.”
** Holbrook expected that football players Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson would make the roster as reserve outfielders, and even though the official roster won’t be out until Friday morning, Holbrook said Christian and Carson will be on it.
Neither was on the team last season, which was both of their first school years at USC. Christian was one of the final cuts. Carson was still recovering from a knee injury that ended his 2011 football season. He missed all of last football season with a wrist injury, but is back from that now.
“Ahmad has been terrific. He’s played well. He’s hit for a high average since he’s been back. He’s not going to be in the Opening Day lineup tomorrow. He’s just figuring out how to play the outfield. He’s a second baseman by trade. That’s what he’s played his whole baseball career. We’re trying to teach him the outfield and it’s a little bit of a work in progress. But knowing the elite type of athlete Ahmad is, he’ll figure that out real quick. I’m counting on him to help our team early. It’s not going to be a midseason type thing with Ahmad. He’s going to get his appearances and opportunities, I would think, out of the gate. That being said, he probably won’t be in the lineup Opening Day tomorrow.
“Shon, on the other hand, terrific athlete, great high school career, been away from the game a couple of years because of injuries. He’s got a little bit more work to do than Ahmad does. Ahmad’s a little bit more ready right now. But Shon can help us win a game. He can pinch run, has got great base running instincts. Tie game in eighth or ninth inning, he can score from second on a single and he can obviously score from first on a double. Great bunter. He’s getting better in the outfield, too, even though he’s got some work to do. He’s just been removed from the game a little bit more than Ahmad, so it’s going to take him a little bit of time. But both of those guys can help us, and I’m counting on both of them to help us as our season gets going and we get into the heart of things.”
** Holbrook shed some light on why he decided to go with Payne as his full-time DH, rather than having him split time with Martin.
“Thrilled with how Erik’s developed from early fall practice until now. Strong, explosive, can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He’s going to be right there in the middle of the lineup tomorrow, maybe fifth or sixth or seventh. I don’t have any plans on doing a right-left thing right now (with designated hitters). Erik Payne’s won that spot, and I’m going to certainly give him plenty of opportunities going forward. He deserves it. He’s worked hard at it and he provides some pop in the middle of our lineup.
“(Martin) needs to be a little bit more consistent. He had a great scrimmage on Sunday, the last one of the spring, and that was encouraging for him and for me. He hasn’t done quite enough to get in the lineup Opening Day. But he can play first base, he can DH and he does provide some pop. I plan on giving him opportunity. He’s a big part of our team. But right now, there’s some guys in front of him. He’s going to have to keep working to get better. That being said, he’s gotten some hits for us, and some important ones. A big hit last year against Clemson. He had a big hit against Kent State last year in Omaha. Kyle’s OK. Just Erik has won the spot as we go into the season.”
** Last season, USC started three freshmen – Pankake at shortstop, Greiner at catcher and English in left field. This season, the starting freshmen are Saiko in left field and Schrock at second, though Costen (a sophomore) is a new face as well. He played in 38 games last year and had 51 at-bats.
“Graham’s been a good player for us from the day he got here. He was the position player of the fall. TJ, he’s earned the right to be our starting right fielder and I plan on letting him play quite a bit right out of the gate. He’s an explosive athlete, a very talented kid. The other new face is Max Schrock, who will be our second baseman tomorrow. I might put him right there in the three hole. He’s a gifted player and we’re looking forward to putting him out there.”
Holbrook wanted Costen to be less of a “wild card.” Has he seen those changes in Costen?
“Yes and no. If you look at his averages in the scrimmage games, very solid. He still has a few too many strikeouts. I’m going to have to live with that a little bit with him. But he’s a difference maker from an athletic standpoint. He can do some things on the bases. He’s an explosive athlete. So are we there yet as far as smoothing him out from a raw standpoint? No, I don’t think we’re there. I think you’re going to see some strikeouts.
“But he can run down balls in the outfield. He can miss a ball (at the plate) and nub one to third base and be safe because he’s so fast. He’s a little bit like Tanner English was a year ago at this time, except TJ’s got some power, too. He can hit them out of sight. He led our team this fall with home runs. He can do a lot of things to help us win a game. We’re going to have to live with the strikeouts a little bit as we get going. But I think he’ll tone those down as the season unfolds.”
** English, of course, led USC with 71 strikeouts last season. That’s why Holbrook is switch-hitting him this year. English will bat left-handed for the first time ever in a game on Friday, against Liberty righty Carson Henrdon.
“I’m wrestling with the fact of do I lead (English) off or do I take the pressure off of him and hit him a little bit down in the order and let him kind of relax and get his feet under him? But he’s been terrific. He’s moved the ball. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do. His bunt game is better. His eye is better. He’s walked a lot more and the strikeouts are down. That was the reason why we made the decision that we made (to switch-hit him).
“There are going to be bumps in the road with him because it’s new. But Tanner’s going to be fine. He might not hit .300, like he did last year, or close to it, but I have a hunch his on-base percentage will be much higher, and because of his speed, that’ll make our team better. He’ll keep better as his career unfolds, left-handed, the more pitches he sees and the more at-bats he gets.”
English was second on the team with a .298 batting average last season, but his on-base percentage was just .341, as he walked 14 times compared to those 71 whiffs.
** Holbrook wants to mix in young guys like Martin and a couple freshmen (third baseman George Iskenderian and shortstop DC Arendas) during non-league play, to keep them fresh.
“I’m going to play some guys, up until we go to Missouri (for the SEC opener on March 15). I’m going to try to get some guys comfortable, especially the newcomers, before we start conference play. I think that’s important as we get into conference play. If there’s a score situation (i.e. USC winning by a lot) in which I can get Joey (Pankake) out of the game and get a freshman comfortable early in the season, I’m going to do it.”
** So far, Holbrook has been pleased by what Pankake has shown him this preseason, and hopes that Pankake can make a big jump as a sophomore.
“We need Joey to have a big year. He’s a very, very talented kid. He’s played a great shortstop thus far. Hit a couple balls extremely hard over the weekend, one out of the park, a couple doubles. He’s had a great preseason. He’s played great defense. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do. He’s a gifted baseball player. We need him to put up some numbers. Tomorrow, I think I’d hit him in the cleanup spot. He’s swung the bat very well.”
** Pankake is just one of several USC players with prodigious speed, though Holbrook isn’t sure how that is going to play out once games start.
“I think that’s one of our strong suits. TJ and Tanner can run with anybody. Ahmad and Shon are extremely fast. Graham Saiko, while he might not be the fastest kid on our team, he’s probably our best base runner. He stole over 20 bases this summer for the (Columbia) Blowfish. He knows how to run the bases. Joey Pankake and Max Schrock can run really well, as can our catcher, Grayson Greiner.
“So seven or eight guys we put in the lineup, I feel comfortable about them stealing a base. They can run. Ahmad and Shon won’t be in there tomorrow, but they might be two of our fastest guys behind Tanner. We are blessed with foot speed. That doesn’t guarantee us that we’re going to steal a lot of bases and that doesn’t guarantee us that we’re going to win a lot of games. But we could win a few 60-yard dash races.”