Pankake powers Gamecocks past Cougars 4-2

nwhite@thestate.comMarch 25, 2014 

Joey Pankake got off to a slow start this season, but it’s safe to say that South Carolina’s junior third baseman has kicked it into gear at the plate.

With three hits and three RBIs on Tuesday night, Pankake not only upped his hitting streak to 11 games but also led the second-ranked Gamecocks to a 4-2 victory at Carolina Stadium.

“We could not find a way to miss Pankake’s bat,” College of Charleston coach Monte Lee said. “He kept barreling the baseball up and hitting the balls where they were pitched. We tried to go in, we tried to go out, we tried to spin the ball. He just stayed on everything today. That’s why he’s one of the best hitters in the country.”

South Carolina improved to 20-3, while the Cougars fell to 16-8. The Gamecocks will play Coastal Carolina (11-14) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Carolina Stadium. Junior Evan Beal will get the start in his first appearance of the season.

Pankake, who homered twice against Kentucky over the weekend, is hitting .418 (18-for-43) during his 11-game hitting streak that dates to the Stetson series, when he was hitting .222. He has since raised his average to .329 for the year with 15 RBIs while also batting a team-best .417 (10-for-24) in SEC play.

“I shortened up my swing a little bit. I never did panic,” Pankake said. “I knew I’d hit. It’s a long season.”

His hot stretch came at the same time that he settled in as the regular third baseman after rotating between there and left field earlier in the season. He wasn’t sure if a correlation existed.

“I really don’t think about that a whole lot when I’m hitting. I don’t know if that’s it, but I have settled in a good bit,” Pankake said. “It’s good to get in a good rhythm, and I’ve been in a good rhythm lately. I hope it carries over to tomorrow.”

USC coach Chad Holbrook likes how his No. 3 hitter is swinging the bat like he did a year ago. He believes that Pankake might have pressed somewhat to start the season.

“He’s gotten comfortable and a little bit more confidence. He’s just getting some good swings,” Holbrook said. “He’s not putting too much pressure on himself. He’s not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. It’s good to see. If we get Joey going offensively, it makes us a little bit more formidable. It’s a big lift for our team.”

USC jumped to a 4-0 lead after two innings off Charleston right-hander Tyler Thornton (0-2). Pankake had an RBI single in the first inning and a two-run double in the second. Elliott Caldwell added an RBI single in the first.

The Cougars cut the lead to 4-1 in the sixth inning on Carl Wise’s RBI single off freshman left-hander Josh Reagan (3-0), who threw four strong innings of relief, allowing two hits and one walk.

“Josh really set the tone for us,” Holbrook said. “He’s just a good pitcher. He can change speeds, pitch in and out and use his fastball. And his changeup is so good. He’s tough.”

Junior right-hander Cody Mincey, who gave up an RBI single to Morgan Phillips in the ninth inning for his first run allowed of the season, pitched the final 1 1/3 innings for his first save.

“Their pitching staff is outstanding. There’s a reason why they’re one of the best baseball teams in the country,” Lee said.

USC played without the services of second baseman Max Schrock, whose sprained ankle is slowly recovering, and catcher Grayson Greiner, who has a bone bruise on his left thumb. Holbrook expects both to miss the Coastal game, but he’s hopeful they can play in this weekend’s SEC home series against Tennessee.

Box score: USC vs. College of Charleston

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