This weekend marks the fourth year that South Carolina and Clemson will play an early season three-game traveling series for their regular season rivalry games.
Before 2010, USC and Clemson usually played each other four times in a season, but just two of the games were paired back-to-back.
Once again, this weekend’s neutral site game will be in Greenville, as it was in 2010 and 2011. Last year, the neutral site game was in Charleston.
Because the games are early in the season, they are very much a wildcard. Neither team has been tested yet. But by the end of this weekend, USC coach Chad Holbrook should know more about his first group of players.
“I’m hoping I don’t have the jitters like I did Opening Day,” said freshman second baseman Max Schrock. “I was pretty nervous Opening Day.”
Last year, USC went 4-1 against Clemson and 3-1 in one-run games against the Tigers, including victories in 11 and 12 innings, the latter in the NCAA tournament Regional.
As we wait to see if this weekend’s traveling series will be as thrilling as last year’s – which was bookended by one-run games, the first being the 11-inning classic in Charleston – here is a look at how former USC coach Ray Tanner fared against Clemson …
2002: 3-3 (including 2-0 in CWS)
2010: 3-2 (including 2-0 in CWS)
2012: 4-1 (including 2-0 in Regional)
Now, some notes from Holbrook and his players as USC-Clemson nears …
** Shortstop Joey Pankake has been dealing with a sore hip and missed Tuesday’s win over Furman. Holbrook said Thursday that he is “very hopeful” Pankake will play in Friday’s series opener at Clemson.
“Not much has changed since Tuesday,” Holbrook said. “He is feeling better. He is certainly not a shoe-in to play right now, but he’s not doubtful either. I think I’ll know a little bit more after the practice (Thursday). I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that he’ll be able to play. If he can’t move laterally left or right, I’m not against DH-ing Joey. It’s certainly a possibility. I think he’s that important to our team.”
** Clemson’s Friday starter, Daniel Gossett, gave up the winning runs in the 11-inning game against USC in Charleston last year, then pitched very well against the Gamecocks in the NCAA tournament Regional in Columbia.
“Gossett is a terrific pitcher,” Holbrook said. “Got a great arm, great breaking ball. He matched (Michael Roth) pitch for pitch last year in our Regional. That showed me a lot about the type of kid he is, type of competitor. He pitched a whale of a game against us in a pretty tough environment to pitch in. We were very, very lucky and fortunate to win that game. Daniel is a great, great pitcher. Great composure. It looks like he’s off to a great start. There’s no doubt in my mind he could be an All-American. We’ll have our hands full (Friday) night.”
** Holbrook was recruited hard by legendary Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm, who coached the Tigers from 1958-1993. He died in December 2010. Though Holbrook picked North Carolina over Clemson, Holbrook said he remained “very close” with Wilhelm.
“He recruited me extremely hard,” Holbrook said. “He stayed in touch with me all through my coaching career and playing career. I worked his baseball camps. He was a mentor of mine. I think about that often. He was a great baseball guy, a great baseball coach, a great human being. I’ll miss not seeing him (Friday). The last couple years, in 2009 especially, I was sitting in the dugout talking to coach Tanner and somebody tapped me on my shoulder and it was coach Wilhelm. I’ll miss that. He was great for college baseball.”
** USC’s new right fielder, sophomore TJ Costen, is hitting just three of 18 with six strikeouts. Holbrook brought him off the bench in the second game against Albany last weekend, opting for Connor Bright as the starting right fielder. But Holbrook expects Costen to get the nod on Friday.
“TJ’s last few at-bats since I didn’t play him Game 2 against Albany, his last two games have been very good (against Albany and Furman),” Holbrook said. “His at-bats have been quality at-bats. He’s hit some balls on the nose. He hasn’t struck out as much, which has kind of been his Achilles heel since he’s been here. I’m very pleased with how he’s played his last two games. It’s very early. Trying to judge someone on how they’re going to perform over 15 at-bats, it’s too early to evaluate that. I have the utmost confidence in TJ. He can run. He’s got some power. I like him down there at the bottom of the order because he’s a threat.”
** Holbrook likes that he has a versatile bullpen.
“(Current closer) Tyler (Webb) could close the game just as easily as Evan Beal could,” Holbrook said.
Freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop is also in the mix as a middle reliever, along with Beal. Wynkoop threw 55 pitches in his first start, Tuesday against Furman.
“I don’t think he can go (Friday), but he could pitch this weekend,” Holbrook said. “We feel good about the depth of our bullpen, but he factors in.”
** After moving from third to first base, LB Dantzler is off to a hot start – 13 of 24. Holbrook has noticed some changes in his offensive approach. Dantzler struggled in the preseason, but then again, he had a great preseason last year and started slow.
“We’re thrilled he’s off to a great start, but we’ve got a lot of games to play,” Holbrook said. “He’s using the whole field a little bit more maybe. He got a couple hits the other way. That’s been really good to see. He’s taken the outside pitch and gone with it and hit a few in the other gap, whereas last year I think he was a little bit more predominately a pull guy. He was trying to hit balls in the right field corner. I think this year he’s using the whole field a little bit more. LB is a little bit more comfortable than he was. He was anxious last year. He was trying so hard. I think he’s just comfortable and relaxed and very confident. That’s the reason for his success more than anything.”
Said Dantzler, of using the whole field: “I put a lot of effort into that. I kind of attribute it a little bit to my (right) hand, the injury (which required surgery at the end of October), kind of having to start back from square one (with swinging). That was nice, kind of working the other way. It wasn’t that last year, I wasn’t allowed to (go the other way), but I was kind of viewed more as a home run guy. This year, I wanted to use the whole field more. I started swinging a wiffle ball bat and a fungo bat at the beginning of December (while starting from square one with swinging during the rehab process).”
Dantzler, of course, had the walk-off single in the first USC-Clemson Regional game, the 12-inning gem.
“I remember (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers coming up to me,” Dantzler said. “I had struck out in the 10th inning with a chance to win the game. He never really gives me any coaching advice in the dugout. It’s always ‘good job’ or something like that. He came to me, and he was like, ‘Hey, LB, keep your head up. You’re going to get a chance to win it for us.’ He was right.
“That was the first time he really joked with me after a game. He just (said) nonchalant, like in his little monotone voice, just like, ‘I told you. I know I don’t normally work with hitters, but I guess I’ll make an exception.’ I’m like, ‘Thanks, coach.’”
Dantzler said people still ask him about the hit on Twitter.
** Beal was spotty last year as a freshman, when he made 28 appearances, 27 in relief, and had a 3.81 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 32 walks. He has loads of talent, and was an eighth-round draft pick out of high school.
In two appearances this year, has allowed three hits and zero runs in 3 2/3 innings, while striking out five and walking nobody. The bulk of his work came Tuesday against Furman – 2 2/3 innings, no hits and three strikeouts.
“He looks a little bit more in control of his emotions (than he was last year),” Holbrook said. “He’s more sure of himself. I think he’s trusting his stuff a little bit more. He’s not trying to make every pitch perfect. He’s got good enough stuff where he can make a mistake and be OK. I think he put a little bit too much pressure on himself (last year) and he tried to throw every pitch as hard as he could and in the right location. His stuff is good enough every now and again to pitch in the middle of the plate.
“I think he’s realized that, and I think he’s slowed his emotions down. He’s a little bit more confident than he was. But again, it’s just a couple of appearances. He did have some big moments for us last year. He pitched very well against Clemson here last year. He’s had success against Clemson. He needs to keep doing what he’s done and build on the last two outings that he had. It is very encouraging for us. But again, long way to go. He’s going to get the ball in some tough situations throughout the year.”
In Beal’s regular season appearance against Clemson, he allowed three hits and two runs in four innings while striking out five and walking one. He earned the win in that game, in Columbia. In the first Regional game, he threw 1 1/3 scoreless, hitless innings and had two strikeouts and no walks.
“Evan is a great pitcher,” Webb said. “When he’s on, he’s got phenomenal stuff. Just being a freshman last year, maybe a little bit of a learning curve. But the more experienced you get as a pitcher, the more you understand your stuff and I think that’s the case with him. I think he’s kind of understanding what he needs to do as a pitcher. You don’t have to be perfect every time. Consistency is the key coming out of the bullpen.”
That’s something Webb learned last year from watching closer Matt Price.
“He didn’t have his best stuff every day when he went out there, by any means,” Webb said. “But he still got the job done and I feel like that’s a great attribute to have, that when the game is on the line, you don’t always have to have your best stuff out there, but he got it done almost every day.”
Two of USC’s newcomers, Schrock and junior left fielder Graham Saiko (a junior college transfer), marvel at Beal’s talent. Now, Beal just has to put it all together.
“All his stuff is electric,” Schrock said. “His fastball just looks like it comes out of his hand harder than most people. And his curveball, that’s the best one I’ve ever seen. It’s just electric. That’s the best word I can use to describe his stuff.”
Said Saiko: “He’s got a very, very good slider. He can throw it in any count for a strike. It’s a sharp slider and breaks hard. It makes it hard because you can’t really sit on any one pitch (because he can throw the slider in any count).”