Just when South Carolina was getting healthy again, with ace pitcher Jordan Montgomery returning from an elbow injury at Tennessee last weekend to join left fielder Graham Saiko (wrist) and center fielder Tanner English (shoulder) on the recovered list, the Gamecocks suffered yet another blow (literally) in Tuesday’s 6-5 home win over The Citadel.
In the third inning, freshman second baseman Max Schrock was covering first base on a sacrifice bunt by Tyler Griffin and fielded a low throw from pitcher Vince Fiori. As Schrock reached down to catch the ball, Griffin plowed into him. There was nothing dirty about the play, but Schrock suffered a slight concussion and neck whiplash and had to leave the game.
His status for this weekend’s Thursday-to-Saturday series at Florida is uncertain, which is a tough break for the Gamecocks, who swept Texas A&M and Tennessee the past two weekends after being swept at home by Arkansas.
In three games at Tennessee, Schrock hit 7 for 12 with five runs scored, seven runs batted-in, three walks, a strikeout, two doubles and a home run. Before that, in 29 games this season, he had one homer, 17 RBI and seven extra base hits. He hit .212 in the first half of the season, after USC coach Chad Holbrook raved about his hitting potential during the preseason. Schrock was finally turning things around, and then Tuesday’s collision happened.
“He did have an X-ray on his neck and there was no fracture there,” Holbrook said. “That was good news. It’s basically like he’s been in a car accident. It’s a moderate case of whiplash. He can’t move his neck. His neck is very stiff. We’re going to try to get him some treatments and keep our fingers crossed that he responds and can play this weekend. In the third inning, they told me it was doubtful that he would even be on the trip. And I wanted to pitch a temper tantrum of my own.
“But in the eighth inning, things started looking up. Hopefully, he’ll get out bed (Wednesday) and feel a little bit better. The doctor was very, very concerned at first with some concussion symptoms, but they subsided very, very quickly. As long as he passes a few of those neurological tests (Wednesday), which the doctor is very encouraged by his last round of testing, then he’ll be on the bus (to Florida).”
If Schrock can’t go, Holbrook might move third baseman Chase Vergason back to second, where he played last season, and insert freshman George Iskenderian at third. Iskenderian contended for the third base job in the preseason and has played in just 13 games, with eight starts – six at designated hitter, two at third base.
“I want to get Iskenderian in the game,” Holbrook said. “That kid is a good player. I don’t know if I’m going to work him some over at second. I’ve been trying to work him some in the outfield, too, because I want to get him some at-bats. I want his athleticism in the game. I’m going to work them out both (Iskenderian and Vergason) there at Florida (on Wednesday) at second and see. Based on experience with Vergie at second, I’d probably do that, at least in the first game of an SEC series. George is a little bit comfortable at third. But George, I’ve got to get him comfortable a little bit more defensively, and third is sometimes difficult to play for a freshman.”
Some other notes from USC’s win over The Citadel, which scored three in a long top half of the ninth, to tie the game at five, only to watch Joey Pankake hit a solo walk-off homer on the second pitch of the bottom of the ninth …
** Holbrook likes what he’s seen so far from Pankake – at least in most of his game.
“He’s our three-hole hitter and he’s our shortstop,” Holbrook said. “If we struggle at those positions both offensively and defensively, it’s going to make things extremely difficult for us. We count on Joey Pankake to lead our team. Sometimes I want to strangle him, but at the same time, you ain’t going to see this coach take him out of the lineup.”
Why does he sometimes want to strangle Pankake?
“Well, y’all see,” Holbrook said. “He makes some errors that he shouldn’t make. He’s such a talented kid. You guys don’t know how talented he is. He’s a gifted player. I think his best baseball is in front of him. He can steal third base, which he did tonight. He could play every position on the field. Literally, he could play every position on the field. He’s one of our fastest guys. He can run the bases well. He’s got a great arm. He can pitch. He’s a baseball player. I want to strangle him because I think he can play better at times than he does, but I expect a lot of him and I think he wants me to expect a lot of him.
“He has a unique ability where he wants the outcome of the game in his hands. You sense it from Joey. Even though he might duck his head from time to time, he always wants the game in his hands. I guess it’s like a cornerback in football that gets burnt and he still wants the next one to come his way. That’s nothing that we can teach or coach. He just has that. He never gets too high, never gets too low. When he’s playing well and he’s 4 for 4, you look at him and you couldn’t tell if he’s 0 for 4. We’ve got some other guys out there, like Graham Saiko, when he’s 0 for 4, everybody in the stadium knows it. I had talks with him about that day. Joey is even-keel. He tries to manage the game the way that you should manage it.”
** USC hit .375 last weekend at Tennessee and scored 36 runs in three games. The Gamecocks had 29 runs in their first nine SEC games and were hitting .196 entering the Tennessee series. On Tuesday, they won the game with Pankake’s swing in the ninth and had 13 hits.
“I’ve been saying, and I believe this from the bottom of my heart, that I think we’ve got a good offensive team,” Holbrook said. “I don’t think it’s a fluke what we did at Tennessee because the pitchers that we hit up there were their better guys. It wasn’t like we feasted on their bottom of the barrel guys. I think we have a good offensive team. Before we went to Tennessee, to me, we had been very disappointing offensively. I don’t think we had performed the way we’re capable of performing, based on statistics.
“But we put some at-bats on top of at-bats (at Tennessee) for the first time I think on a consistent basis. We collectively had some good approaches. We used the whole field a lot more. We had some big two-strike hits. And hitting is contagious. What I hope that I’m seeing is guys are relaxing, they’re taking a deep breath and they’re just playing the game and not burdening themselves with expectations or putting pressure on themselves to succeed. They’re just playing. I hope that the last four games or so is the type of team offensively that we’ll be for the rest of the year.”
** Holbrook knows at least most of his starting rotation for the Florida series – Nolan Belcher on Thursday and Montgomery on Friday.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do in that third spot yet,” Holbrook said. “It’s tough to figure out. I don’t know who’s going to be healthy. Jordan is going Friday. I don’t think we’re going to throw him out there for 115 pitches, but he’s not going to be on the strict pitch count that he was on at Tennessee (where he threw 59 pitches). We’ll TBA it probably for Saturday based on who we use to win the games Thursday and Friday. If (Adam) Westmoreland (the setup reliever) hasn’t thrown Thursday or Friday, we might start him Saturday. I was very impressed with the way Colby Holmes threw at Tennessee (in relief on Sunday). That was the Colby that has won a lot of games for us. I’m sure he wants the ball, too, and we feel comfortable giving him the ball.”
Holmes has been up and down, and mostly down, this season, but he showed up on Sunday – two hits and an earned run in five innings, with three strikeouts and no walks.
USC’s rotation hasn’t been settled since Montgomery went out after his third start of the season. Montgomery looked good in his return Sunday. He allowed four hits and no runs in four innings. He had missed his previous four starts.
Evan Beal was strong initially in replacing Montgomery in the rotation, but he sputtered again at Tennessee, allowing two runs in two innings. He hasn’t lasted more than 3 2/3 innings in any of his past three starts and he has allowed 12 runs in nine innings during those starts.
Holbrook went with Beal, Belcher, Montgomery at Tennessee, but now it appears that Beal might have lost his spot in the rotation. Holbrook wanted him to close Tuesday’s game, but he allowed a run and a run in a third of an inning and had to be replaced by Jack Wynkoop, who got two weekend starts as a result of Holmes’ struggles, but was bumped from the rotation by Montgomery’s return at Tennessee.
Wynkoop preceded Beal on Tuesday and allowed two runs and two hits in 1 2/3 innings, but Holbrook was more pleased with Wynkoop’s outing than Beal’s.
“All of a sudden, (Beal) couldn’t find the strike zone,” Holbrook said. “That was frustrating, because Evan Beal, as experienced as he is, should be able to finish that game out. I think he would tell you the same thing. That was the disappointing part of the ninth inning for me. I have no problem with the way Jack pitched.”
** Florida got a big 4-3 win on Tuesday at Florida State, but the Gators are still just 16-18 this year. They are nowhere to be found in Baseball America’s top 25, which includes five SEC teams in the top 13 – No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 3 LSU, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 11 USC and No. 13 Kentucky.
USC has already played Arkansas. After the Florida series, USC hosts Kentucky, travels to LSU and hosts Vanderbilt – three straight series that could define the Gamecocks’ season. After the Vanderbilt series, they have just two SEC series, and then the push for a fourth straight trip to the College World Series begins in earnest.