As the South Carolina baseball team winds toward the end of fall practice later this month, Chad Holbrook has few complaints as he prepares for his second season at the program’s helm.
The Gamecocks are blending a large and highly regarded recruiting class with a strong group of returning veterans, as they eye a trip to the College World Series for the fourth time in five seasons.
Here are five things things we’ve learned during fall practice:
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISES
Junior first baseman Kyle Martin is swinging the bat well as he works to inherit the starting role. He’s also being looked at to provide some lefty relief innings on the mound, where he has turned heads.
But the freshman class of pitchers also drew plenty of praise, a group that includes right-handers Wil Crowe, Matt Vogel, and Canaan Cropper and left-handers Josh Reagan and John Parke.
“You never know what you’re going to get with freshmen, but they have shown great makeup, great mound presence and quite a bit of talent, as well,” Holbrook said. “I’m certainly glad with the way they’ve handled themselves up to this point. Those kids are going to fill prominent roles in the spring.”
BEST POSITION BATTLES
Figuring out who’s going to play third base and left field might be the trickiest pieces of the puzzle. Joey Pankake, the hard-hitting junior who played shortstop the past two seasons, and junior-college transfer Elliott Caldwell are the top candidates, as both have the ability to play either spot.
Holbrook also talked of using one of his middle infielders at third base at times, with junior-college transfer shortstop Marcus Mooney, returning sophomores Max Schrock and DC Arendas, and freshman Jordan Gore in that mix. Schrock was one of the team’s top players last season at second base.
The rest of the lineup figures to include Martin at first base, Team USA catcher Grayson Greiner, center fielder Tanner English and right-fielder Connor Bright.
GOT TO HAVE HEALTH
Some of the veterans have taken it slow in the fall. Because they’ve already proven what they can do, Holbrook wanted them to heal so they’ll be ready to go in the spring.
Pankake strained his right elbow, so he hasn’t gotten on the mound as the coaches had hoped, although he’s hitting again. Schrock, who’s slowly recovering from a stress fracture in his back suffered over the summer, should take his first at-bats in scrimmages this weekend. Staff ace Jordan Montgomery, a junior left-hander, has not thrown in scrimmages this fall after he missed a month in the spring because of a stress reaction in his throwing arm.
LEADING THE WAY
The core group of juniors — Greiner, English, Pankake and Montgomery — has the ability and the experience to lead this team to Omaha. Holbrook likes how the speedy English has been far more aggressive on the basepath this fall to go with his strong play in center. Pankake made big improvements as a hitter last season and could do the same again. Montgomery’s cool demeanor and excellent command make him a Friday night guy. And Greiner might be poised for the biggest season.
“Grayson is playing as good as I’ve ever seen him play both offensively and defensively,” Holbrook said. “Me and (Brian) Buscher were standing beside each other during a scrimmage, and after two of his at-bats, we said, ‘He looks like a big leaguer.’ He’s handling everything the right way and hitting the ball with authority.”
CLOSING IT OUT
After having Matt Price and then Tyler Webb serve as the closer over the past four seasons, Holbrook realizes filling those shoes will not be easy. So he’s going to let it play out until after he decides on a third weekend starter behind Montgomery and sophomore lefty Jack Wynkoop. He expects someone to emerge from his group of young arms.
“These freshmen have to grow up quickly,” Holbrook said. “They’re talented enough, but going out there pitching in front of a full house with the game on the line against LSU or an instate rival is a whole different deal. We’re going to learn about them as we go.”