Five questions facing USC baseball in 2013

Gamecocks begins preseason practice on Friday

nwhite@thestate.comJanuary 24, 2013 

South Carolina Gamecocks cornerback Ahmad Christian (4) and running back Shon Carson (7) have some fun during practice at Jefferson High School in Tampa.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

For the first time since 1997, the South Carolina baseball team will have a new head coach. Chad Holbrook’s first group of Gamecocks opens preseason practice Friday in preparation for the season opener Feb. 15 against Liberty at Carolina Stadium.

Let’s take a look at five questions that surround a team that lost stalwarts Michael Roth, Matt Price, Christian Walker, Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews from the past three seasons.

HOW WILL THINGS BE DIFFERENT UNDER HOLBROOK?

Don’t expect a lot of changes from the way Ray Tanner ran the show. Holbrook’s team will likely be more aggressive on the basepaths, but in terms of operating philosophy, the two coaches have similar philosophies. Holbrook’s prominent role the last four seasons – the final three of which ended in the College World Series finals – probably means the transition will go smoothly. The players, who were all recruited during his tenure, are comfortable with him. The staff also remained constant with pitching coach Jerry Meyers and assistant coach Sammy Esposito back, along with volunteer assistant Brian Buscher returning after a year away.

WHAT WILL THE STARTING ROTATION BE?

With a pair of experienced starters returning in senior right-hander Colby Holmes and sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery, the Gamecocks have a couple of solid options, and they look locked in at the front of the rotation to start the season. Meyers has plenty of choices to fill out the back end of the weekend rotation as well as the midweek starter. Freshman left-hander Jack Wynkoop and freshman right-hander Curt Britt both impressed in fall camp. Senior captains Patrick Sullivan, a righty, and Nolan Belcher, a lefty, also will be in the mix for a variety of roles. Right-handers Forrest Koumas, Joel Seddon, and Evan Beal combined to make eight starts last season.

WHO IS GOING TO BE THE CLOSER?

If the season started today, senior left-hander Tyler Webb would assume the role. Replacing all-time saves leader Matt Price isn’t going to be easy, but Webb, a one-time starter, pitched superbly in middle relief last season with a 6-1 record, 1.56 ERA and three saves. It will help to have a seasoned veteran coming into games in those crucial late-inning situations.

WHO WILL PLAY THE CORNERS IN THE INFIELD AND THE OUTFIELD?

The up-the-middle spots look set with catcher Grayson Greiner, shortstop Joey Pankake, second baseman Max Schrock and center fielder Tanner English, but the other four spots remain up for grabs. It appears last season’s third baseman LB Dantzler, one of the top power hitters, will shift to first base to replace Walker. That likely will lead to last season’s second baseman, Chase Vergason, moving to third base after freshman Schrock won the job at second. The leading candidates to start in the outfield are junior-college transfer Graham Saiko in left and sophomore returnee T.J. Costen in right. But they will be pushed by a host of other players.

WILL ANY FOOTBALL PLAYERS MAKE THE ROSTER?

Ahmad Christian is near-certain to be included on the 35-man roster, and the cornerback, who narrowly missed making the baseball team last spring, might push for playing time in the outfield. The same could go for Shon Carson, but his importance to the football program at tailback complicates matters in regards to spring football practice, especially if he isn’t going to be a baseball regular. Kwinton Smith, a freshman receiver, was drafted last summer out of high school by the Texas Rangers, but the athletic outfielder and pitcher faces longer odds.

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