Less than a month remains until South Carolina opens its baseball season, Feb. 15 at home against Liberty.
Much around the Gamecocks has changed. Gone are staples of USC’s national championship teams of 2010 and 2011 – guys like pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price, first baseman Christian Walker, centerfielder Evan Marzilli and right fielder Adam Matthews. They all won two rings and helped USC make the College World Series finals last season.
As you look at USC’s 2013 roster, you’ll notice that junior pitcher Forrest Koumas is back. He was a contributor on the 2011 title team. Ditto for senior pitcher Colby Holmes, who did not compete in the World Series as a freshman in 2010. Senior reliever Tyler Webb was a contributor to both national title teams.
But that’s it. All the other juniors and seniors on the 2013 roster either did not contribute significantly to a national title or were junior college transfers who arrived last season. That’s what happens when you have three key juniors turn pro, as Walker, Marzilli and Price did.
Still, USC will need leadership from seniors like pitcher Nolan Belcher (played sparingly in 2010 and took a medical redshirt in 2011), first baseman LB Dantzler (arrived last season), third baseman Chase Vergason (arrived last season) and catcher Dante Rosenberg (arrived in 2011 but took medical redshirt). Junior designated hitter Erik Payne also found himself in a larger role last season and is trying to continue it this season.
The faces on the field obviously aren’t the only thing that has changed. Ray Tanner, the Gamecocks’ coach since 1997, is now USC’s athletic director and Chad Holbrook has taken over as head coach after spending four seasons as Tanner’s top assistant.
Yet the one thing that hasn’t changed for USC is the lofty expectations. The Gamecocks have made the NCAA tournament Super Regional 10 times in the past 13 years. They won six of those 10 Super Regionals, to reach the World Series. Twice they won the World Series. Two other times they finished second.
Tanner missed the NCAA tournament twice in his first three years, and failed to get past the Regional the other time. After that three-year slow start, came the aforementioned 13-year run.
Because Holbrook has more to work with and is taking over the program at a much higher point than Tanner did – USC hadn’t been to the World Series since 1985 when Tanner arrived – many USC fans would be quite disappointed if the Gamecocks failed to make a Super Regional in Holbrook’s first season.
Some would even be frustrated if USC doesn’t reach Omaha and the World Series for the fourth straight year, which would be a new record for a program that went from 2002-04 and 2010-12.
Holbrook understands that. But all he can worry about now is putting the pieces in place to try to carry on USC’s success. USC has already started skill work, but Friday is the first day that the entire team can practice together. At that point, USC will be exactly three weeks out from its opener against Liberty.
On Wednesday morning, Holbrook spent some time discussing the nuts and bolts of what likely will be his Opening Day roster.
Here’s what it looked like at the end of last season …
1B – Jr. Christian Walker
2B – Jr. Chase Vergason
SS – Fr. Joey Pankake
3B – Jr. LB Dantzler
C – Fr. Grayson Greiner (primary), Jr. Dante Rosenberg (backup)
RF – Sr. Adam Matthews
CF – Jr. Evan Marzilli
LF – Fr. Tanner English
DH – Fr. Kyle Martin, So. Erik Payne
Starters – Sr. Michael Roth, Jr. Colby Holmes, Fr. Jordan Montgomery
Closer – Jr. Matt Price
Setup man – Jr. Tyler Webb
Before we get into Holbrook’s thoughts on his 2013 Opening Day lineup, here is what it likely will look like. Bet on seeing at least two members (maybe three) of the recruiting class that was ranked No. 10 nationally by Collegiate Baseball.
1B – Sr. LB Dantzler
2B – Fr. Max Schrock
SS – So. Joey Pankake
3B – Sr. Chase Vergason OR Fr. George Iskenderian
C – So. Grayson Greiner (primary), Sr. Dante Rosenberg (backup)
RF – So. TJ Costen
CF – So. Tanner English
LF – Fr. Graham Saiko
DH – So. Kyle Martin, Jr. Erik Payne
Starters – Sr. RHP Colby Holmes, So. LHP Jordan Montgomery, Fr. LHP Jack Wynkoop
Closer – TBD
Setup man – TBD
As you can see, in terms of the eight position players, USC would have three brand new starters (Schrock, Costen and Saiko). But three other players would be starting at new positions (Dantzler, Vergason and English, who is more of a natural centerfielder anyway). Only Greiner at catcher and Pankake at shortstop would be returning starters to the same position.
Here is what Holbrook had to say about the lineup and why he made the moves he did, including encouraging English to switch hit …
“I think right now LB Dantzler is going to be our first baseman, at least to start the year. He’s a little bit more advanced defensively than Kyle (Martin) is. LB wants to play over at first a little bit. We’ve got a couple new guys that are going to have the option to play for us. Moving LB to first kind of creates some competition over there (at third base) amongst our younger guys. And LB wanted to do that (move to first).
“LB, to be honest with you, he wasn’t very good at third this fall. As good as he played defensively last year, he wasn’t great this fall at third. I want LB to relax and hit. I don’t want him to worry about his defense. And it seems like, at first (base), he doesn’t worry about defense. I think he’s going to have a good year offensively for us.
“And that brings (about): What are you going to do at third? Well, Chase Vergason deserves to play and at least deserves the first opportunity at it because of what he did for us last year (while playing second base). He’s a good baseball player. He’s not an awesome talent. But he’s the kind of guy that you want to have on the field, an intangibles guy, an on-base percentage guy, tough nut, wants to win. He’s just a little gritty player. He’s going to have a chance to play third.”
Vergason’s .402 on-base percentage last season was second on the team to Walker’s .450.
“But we’ve got a couple guys pushing him pretty hard. George Iskenderian is a freshman. He’s the one that’s probably closest to (Vergason in the competition at third). He has a chance to be a special player for us. He’s probably way more talented than Chase, but he’s not as experienced and old and mature as Chase either. So we’re going to get George in there, and he’s going to have some opportunities this year, too.
“Pankake will be our shortstop. Backing him up is a freshman named DC Arendas who is a solid, solid defender and he’s going to be a good player for us. … If we play defense, if we feel good about the middle of our infield, they say that the strength of your team is how strong you are up the middle defensively, and I think we’re pretty good there.”
Pankake had 17 errors last season.
“If Joey struggles some defensively, we do have a freshman who is a very solid defender (Arendas), who really has played well defensively.
“(Sophomore) Connor Bright is in there (as a backup infielder). We’ve got to get Connor some at-bats. He has some experience. Our biggest challenge is getting everybody some at-bats because there are going to be some in there that deserve it that aren’t in the starting lineup.”
Holbrook is very high on Schrock.
“Max Schrock is a freshman second baseman who I think is terrific. He’ll start there and probably hit in the middle of our lineup. I’d say he’s going to be in the three hole Opening Day. I think he’s that good. Good runner, too, good defender. Can run, can hit. He’s the closest thing we’ve had as a pure hitter since (Christian) Walker in my view. Jackie (Bradley Jr.) was good, but Max, he hasn’t played a game yet, so I hate to put that pressure on him, but I think you’ll see what I’m talking about and it won’t take long.”
“Our centerfielder is Tanner English, obviously. He is switch hitting, so it’s going to be a little different for him. He might get off to a little slow start, just because it’s new for him. He had played around with (switch hitting) some (before committing to it in the fall), but he hadn’t done it much.
“I got tired of watching him strike out, so on the way home from Omaha last year, I said, ‘You’re switch hitting, bud.’ His eyes got big. It wasn’t a new concept for him. I think he got tired of striking out, too. I think he’s still going to be a kid that strikes out some, but I think it’ll go down some. He’s obviously closer to first base (when he hits from the left side rather than the right side, where he hit from last year). I think it’s going to help his on-base percentage, as fast as he is. If he can just hit the ball on the ground somewhere, he’s got a chance of beating it out.”
English ranked second on USC with a .298 batting average, but his on-base percentage was just .341 because he struck out 71 times – 14 more than anybody else on the team. He attempted just 15 steals, but was successful 12 times. Bet on his steal attempts going up this season under Holbrook, who would like to use a more aggressive approach on the base paths.
“In left field, our position player of the fall (award winner) was a kid named Graham Saiko, so he’ll get the nod there, at least to start the year. He and Schrock shared the position player of the fall (award). They both had great falls. We kind of recruited (Saiko) as an infielder, but he’s kind of found his niche in the outfield. He’s a pretty good offensive player. So he’ll play left.
“He’s being pushed hard by the two football players, (cornerback) Ahmad Christian and (running back) Shon Carson, and both of those kids will push TJ Costen hard in right, too, because TJ probably won the job in the fall with the way he played. But he’s a little bit of a wild card, too. Consistency has been his issue – in many aspects. He’s a very talented kid, maybe more talented than anybody we’ve got on the field, but hopefully he can become consistent in everything that he does and have a great year.”
Neither Christian nor Carson was on the team last season. Both were true freshmen on the football team in the fall of 2011. But come last spring, Christian didn’t make the final roster cut and Carson was still recovering from a knee injury that ended his football season. A wrist injury resulted in Carson getting no carries in 2012, but he has recovered now and can swing.
“He’s looked good. I think they both are going to be on the team, as I sit here right now. I’m certain, if they don’t get hurt, Ahmad is on it and I’m pretty sure that Shon is on it, too. I expect Ahmad to play. Shon is coming off a tough (wrist) injury, so he needs to keep getting better. If he’s healthy and 100 percent ready to go, I expect him to get in there, too.
“But coach Tanner will tell you that me and him thought our biggest mistake last year was not keeping Ahmad (on the roster after final cuts). He’s a good player. I wouldn’t be surprised if come April 1 that Ahmad Christian is not a starter. That’s just a gut feeling.”
In terms of pitchers, “Jordan and Colby will be our first two guys. Both had great falls.
“Jack Wynkoop has been terrific, a freshman left-hander who I think is going to be a first- or second-round draft pick in a couple years. He’s a very talented kid. We haven’t quite made up our mind yet (about) how we want to use Jack. Do we want to pitch him on Sunday or do we want to pitch him in some valuable innings – seventh, eighth, ninth inning type.
“He’s got a great pick-off move, he throws strikes, he’s a solid, solid guy. So (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers is trying to figure out how we’re going to use him. But I would think he’s probably the leader to be the Sunday starter.
“Nolan Belcher (lefty) is back and 100 percent. Forrest Koumas (righty who is now 100 percent after offseason elbow surgery) is back and we think he’s had some good bullpens for us since the fall. (Sophomore righty) Evan Beal is back. He had a decent year for us last year. He’s been nursing a little shoulder tendonitis that we’re going to probably slow some of his stuff down.”
Beal was an eighth-round draft pick and the highest-drafted member of last year’s freshman class. He threw 52 innings in 28 appearances, with one start. He was spotty, with a 3.81 earned-run average, 55 strikeouts and 32 walks. He and Webb (57 2/3 innings) were USC’s primary setup men for Price last season. Has Beal proven himself one way or the other, as a reliable starter or reliever?
“No, and we’re trying to find that spot for him. He could be a Sunday guy or he could be a closer. And we’ve got (lefty) Tyler Webb back. We love Tyler. He pitched some valuable innings for us last year and was terrific.”
Webb is definitely a bullpen guy, Holbrook said.
“Yeah, and that’s where he wants to be.”
Holbrook said the coaches “think a lot of” sophomore righty Joel Seddon, a 20th-round pick who threw just 16 1/3 inning last season in nine appearances (three starts).
“He didn’t get many opportunities, but he’s every bit as talented as anybody we’ve got. If he’s throwing strikes, he can be as good as anybody we’ve got. (Righty) Curt Britt is a freshman that’s going to pitch a lot. We’re excited about Curt.
“We feel good about the depth of our pitching staff. We’re going to be able to put some guys out there that have pitched in Omaha, that have won a national championship, had good experience and have pitched on a big stage.
“Jordan Montgomery pitched in the biggest game of the year for us last year against Clemson in the (NCAA tournament) Regional here and was phenomenal and then he backed that up with an incredible performance in Omaha against Arkansas. If Colby and Jordan stay healthy, we feel like we’ll be in the game with those guys on the mound.
“Patrick Sullivan had a great fall and is a senior. He’s going to be able to pitch some. He’s changing arm angles a little bit now.”
As for the DH situation, “I’m not against DH-ing Greiner, too, when Dante is catching. And (I’m) not against DH-ing Ahmad Christian. We want some speed in there. But I’d say our two leaders for DH are Kyle (Martin) versus right-handers and Payne versus left-handers.”