South Carolina completed a sweep of Georgia on Sunday, and kept alive its chances of getting a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament, with an 8-3 victory that was fairly uneventful – except for one big event at the end of the fourth inning, after USC’s Joey Pankake was thrown out trying to steal third base.
As Georgia’s players left the field, second baseman Nelson Ward and shortstop Kyle Farmer appeared to exchange words with USC third base coach Sammy Esposito. Within moments, Esposito was yelling at them, several players came out of the Georgia dugout and the umpires were trying to diffuse the confrontation.
Even after that part of it ended, Georgia first base coach Jason Jacobs said something to the USC dugout as he walked toward his coach’s box for the top of the fifth. USC coach Chad Holbrook sniped back at Jacobs, as did strength and conditioning coach Billy Anderson. Meanwhile, over the Georgia dugout, at least one player and the fans behind the dugout exchanged angry words.
In the end, Esposito, Jacobs and Anderson were all ejected, but the situation did not escalate above verbal sparring.
Here’s how Holbrook explained the incident afterward …
“It’s an emotional game,” he said. “They’re trying real hard to win. We’re trying real hard. How I understood it to be was a little bit of a conversation between a couple of their players and Joey. Then boys became boys, and that’s baseball. It’s no big deal. It’s really not. They’ve got classy kids on their team. I recruited a lot of them. They’re good kids. Our kids are good kids. It’s baseball. Sometimes your best friend might be your brother and you might get in a fight with him one night. It’s boys being boys. That’s all it was. I’m proud of my team for not leaving the dugout. We’ve coached them hard on that. I’m proud of the way they handled that situation. But that shouldn’t be what the game is about. The game should be about the way our kids played. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Holbrook knows the situation might have been different if Esposito had just walked away.
“He’s as fiery of a competitor as we’ve got and that’s what I love about him,” Holbrook said. “Hey, I was coaching third one time, and as many of you know, I went nose to nose with the Vanderbilt coach. It happens. It just happens. Espo feels terrible about it. But it’s baseball. Espo is a fiery guy, a competitive guy. And so is Joey. Sometimes, when one thing is said here and there, we chirp back. Maybe we shouldn’t have chirped back, but we did. It really is no big deal. I think we’re making it much bigger than it was. But it’s an exciting day at the ballpark.”
After the delay before the fifth, which the umps used to sort out the ejections, USC freshman lefty Jack Wykoop came back out and retired the side in order, including two strikeouts.
“As soon as that (verbal spat) happened I went up to (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers and I said, ‘OK, all hell has broken loose and we’ve got a freshman out there. Get (reliever Adam Westmoreland) going.’ I think (Wynkoop) was the most composed guy in the ballpark, to be honest with you. Our players are emotional and their players are emotional, the fans are into it, and the coolest cucumber in the stadium was Jack. I thought he was a cool customer. That showed me a lot about him.”
As for how the situation was handled with the ejections, Holbrook said, “I can’t speak for the umpires and I don’t want to get involved in it. I do know this: We have to coach our guys extremely hard not to leave the dugout if something like that happens. If you leave your position or leave the dugout, you can be suspended multiple games. But because it happened at the end of an inning, people coming and going, that’s why I don’t really think it’s a big deal. Listen, (Georgia’s) Dave Perno has been coaching in this league a long time. He’s a classy guy and he runs a classy program. And I think we do, too. It was just an instance in the game that happened. I apologized to Dave and he apologized to me, and it’s the end of the deal. There is mutual respect on both ends and cooler heads prevailed at the end of the day.”
Some other notes from Holbrook’s post-sweep press conference, as the Gamecocks improved to 16-10 in the SEC entering next weekend’s regular season finale series at Mississippi State …
** USC hit .315 this weekend and is now hitting .285 this year – 20 points better than last year.
“I think you guys laughed at me at the beginning of the year when I told you I think we had a chance to be better offensively than we were a year ago,” Holbrook said. “And you said, ‘Well, you lost (Christian) Walker and you lost (Evan) Marzilli.’ We lost some really good players. But I just felt that, for some reason, we had a group that knew what a good at-bat was, and is, and took pride in it. Graham (Saiko) is hitting .250, but he knows what a good at-bat is. He can get on base. He’ll walk. We’ve got a number of guys in that lineup that are close to one-to-one in walk-to-strikeout ratio. That’s a stat I look at all the time. That’s why, Chase Vergason, he ain’t the most talented kid on the field and it ain’t even close, but he gives you everything he’s got and he knows what a good at-bat is. That being said, we could finish hitting .265, too, with some of the teams that we’re going to play and pitchers that we’re going to face. But right now, as we sit here today, we’ve done some nice things offensively. But we’re certainly no offensive juggernaut by any stretch.”
** USC’s best hitter, LB Dantzler, had to take the day off Sunday because of a sore shoulder.
“LB felt terrible today,” Holbrook said. “I about put him in there anyway, as just a decoy, and told him to take. I almost did. Here was my thinking: (Jared) Walsh had thrown some balls and I think he had 24 walks in 30 innings going into the game (30 2/3 innings), and LB commands respect. He was just really sore. Then logic kind of crept into my mind. We’ve got some very, very important games coming up and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if he would’ve gotten hurt today. He needs to do some strengthening this week to kind of get his shoulder. When your shoulder pops out of joint, the concern is doing it again. And the reason it does it again is because your muscles are weak and it’s loose. We’ve got a week to strengthen that thing up and tighten it up a little bit and kind of take the fear away of that thing popping back out again. I would think he’ll be able to play Thursday (at Mississippi State) He’s going to have to prove to me that he’s 100 percent to play Tuesday (against Presbyterian), because there’s no real need for that.”
** Tanner English was 2 for 4 on Sunday after being 0 for 3 in the series entering Sunday. Holbrook didn’t start him on Saturday.
“Tanner has had a little bit of a difficult stretch,” Holbrook said. “There are some personal things going on with Tanner that I’m going to keep between me and Tanner. It has nothing to do with me and him. It’s personal. He’s doing a great job of managing his emotions and the things that are going on in his life right now. I’m proud of Tanner for the way he responded. He needed a day (off) yesterday just to kind of clear his mind. Not from a baseball standpoint. He just needed a day to clear his mind. He needed to get back to having fun playing the game. Sometimes Tanner struggles with failure and sometimes the game becomes a burden to him because he tries so hard not to fail. Well, in this game, you’re going to fail. He’s learning how to process and manage the game while dealing with some things off the field. I’m certainly proud of the way he played today and responded. He saved a series for us against LSU and played his tail off and made some of the best plays defensively that I’ve seen in this uniform and I’ll include Evan Marzilli and Jackie Bradley. He made plays at LSU that I didn’t think a kid could make. We can’t be the team that we want to be without Tanner English in center field.”
** Pankake hit 6 for 10 against the Bulldogs this weekend and is now batting .324, second on the team.
“Pankake has been terrific,” Holbrook said. “Big hit after big hit. Joey gets some criticism around here. I wouldn’t trade Joey Pankake for anybody. People don’t know how tough that kid is. I can sleep good putting him at shortstop and hitting him in the three hole every night. I think you’re seeing what type of player he is.”