Grayson Greiner: A grand slam of a career

Greiner steadily grows as player, leader

nwhite@thestate.comMay 17, 2014 

  • JUST THE FACTS

    A closer look at USC catcher Grayson Greiner:

    Class: Junior

    Ht./Wt.: 6-5/220

    High School: Blythewood

    Major: Accounting

    Favorite baseball memory: Playing for national championship in his freshman year

    Favorite baseball movie: The Sandlot

    Favorite baseball player growing up: Chipper Jones

    Favorite all-time USC athlete: Landon Powell

  • GREINER’S HONORS

    A look at the accomplishments this season of USC junior catcher Grayson Greiner:

    •  One of 15 semifinalists for 2014 Johnny Bench Award presented to top catcher.

    •  2013-14 USC Co-Male Student-Athlete of the Year along with Bruce Ellington.

    •  On USA Baseball’s Midseason Watch List for the Golden Spikes Award.

    •  SEC Player of the Week after hitting walk-off grand slam against Tennessee.

    Won Tom Price award as MVP for USC vs. Clemson, hitting .400 for weekend.

  • BY THE NUMBERS

    Greiner’s stats entering the weekend series against Vanderbilt:

    Average: .339 (62-for-183)

    Runs: 37

    Doubles: 11, a team high

    Homers: 8

    RBIs: 49, third highest in SEC

    On-base percentage: .414

    Slugging percentage: .539

Grayson Greiner doesn’t hesitate answering the question.

Asked to pick between two of his season highlights – the grand slam that started a big comeback win against Clemson or the walk-off grand slam that capped a remarkable two-out ninth-inning rally to beat Tennessee – South Carolina’s junior catcher is unequivocal in his choice.

“Tennessee,” he said. “That one was really cool.”

His long home run onto Carolina Stadium’s left-field concourse capped a six-run comeback in the 9-6 victory against the Volunteers. When the Gamecocks loaded the bases before his at-bat, he had one thought: “I’ve got to do something here.”

That he responded so emphatically under the pressure that comes with every SEC series amazes him even now, especially since it occurred after teammate Jordan Gore hit a walk-off solo home run in the 14th inning to win the first game of the day.

“It still feels like a dream, like it didn’t happen,” he said.

It got even better when he and his teammates gathered to watch ESPN’s Top 10 plays that night.

“To be able to have that moment with all my friends, after watching SportsCenter growing up, and to have the No. 1 play, it was really special,” he said. “To hit the walk-off grand slam against Tennessee after another walk-off earlier in the day, that was just one of the craziest things ever.”

That storybook moment fit neatly into a storybook career for Greiner, who is a third-generation Gamecock legacy. His father Mark played for legendary coach Frank McGuire’s basketball teams from 1972-76, and his grandfather, the late Bill Killoy, served as the kicker for the USC football team from 1947-50. Naturally, he grew up believing the greatest fashion faux pas was wearing orange.

He says his decision coming out of Blythewood High in 2011 to wear garnet and black was the best one he could have made. A three-year starter, he has steadily improved every season.

As a freshman, he caught for a team that reached the College World Series championship finals. As a sophomore, he played well enough to earn a spot on the Team USA roster last summer with the collegiate game’s best players. And as a junior, he has stepped up his game to the level that he’s likely to be selected in the first three rounds of the MLB draft next month.

“It’s everything I dreamed it would be with the love and support I’ve gotten from the Columbia community and all the Gamecock fans,” Greiner said. “It’s everything I imagined and more. I would not trade these three years for anything.”

Greiner has packed a great deal into three seasons. He is six classes from graduating with a major in accounting and minor in sports management while carrying a 3.5 GPA. He has made friendships that will last a lifetime, especially those with junior teammates and roommates Joel Seddon, Joey Pankake and Tanner English.

He’s not going to be around for a fourth season. Professional baseball will call his name on June 5 or 6, and he’ll leave USC as one the program’s greatest catchers alongside Landon Powell, Greg Keatley and Chris Boyle.

After hitting .222 with six homers and 32 RBIs as a freshman, he batted .298 with four homers and 38 RBIs last season. He has made a huge leap offensively this season by batting .339 with eight homers, 49 RBIs, a .414 on-base percentage and a .530 slugging percentage, all team highs.

His offensive progression, along with his defensive ability, has pushed him high onto the lists of the top draft prospects. Baseball America ranks him No. 74 nationally. ESPN’s Keith Law ranks him No. 76. Perfect Game ranks him No. 85. If he’s drafted somewhere in that range, he’ll earn a signing bonus from $650,000 to $750,000.

As gratified as he is by future possibilities, he prefers to stay focused on USC’s postseason push.

“Honestly, South Carolina baseball is my No. 1 priority. I want this team to go as far as it can and for me to be able to play with this group of guys as long as I can,” Greiner said. “It’s difficult not to think about because it’s been my dream since I was four years old to play professional baseball. Wherever someone picks me, I’ll be grateful to that organization.”

Greiner, who stands 6-foot-5 and carries 220 pounds on his frame, said he must satisfy the concerns that many MLB scouts have about tall catchers. Teams worry about taller catchers being hindered in blocking and throwing because of the mechanics involved in compactly and quickly moving longer limbs. Larger catchers also are viewed as more injury-prone over the grind of a long season because of the added stress placed on joints such as knees and ankles.

ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson, a former major league pitcher, has seen Greiner play numerous times and likes what he sees. But he’s not entirely sold from a defensive standpoint, citing an unorthodox throwing motion, as well as a large frame that could mean that Greiner moves to first base.

“I think he’s going to hit and he’s going to hit for power, and they’ll figure out a place to put a guy like that. If he can catch, it becomes a huge advantage,” Peterson said. “His feet are really good. His ability to block the ball, he made some moves Thursday night against Vanderbilt on balls down in the dirt that were not easy. The question - is the arm going to be consistent enough?”

Over his career entering Saturday’s game, Greiner has thrown out 37 of 119 runners attempting to steal for a 31 percent success rate. He has allowed 10 passed balls, six this season, and made a total of seven errors.

Scouts have told Greiner that their teams want him as a catcher.

Although there haven’t been many 6-5 catchers with sustained success at the MLB level, he can point to Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, who was moved to first base this season because of injury concerns, and Baltimore’s Matt Wieters as successful examples. Sandy Alomar, Jr., also had a long career behind the plate.

“I try not to get worked up over what other people are saying. If you worry too much about what people are saying on the outside, it can affect what your ultimate goal is,” Greiner said. “I’ll catch until some coach puts me in the lineup as something else. I’m going to keep putting the gear on and keep working to be the best catcher I can be.”

Baseball America has a handful of other catchers in both college and high school ranked ahead of him in the Top 100, although some of them could be moved to other positions. Perfect Game ranks Greiner as the No. 4 collegiate defensive player nationally and No. 4 in arm strength – the top catcher in both listings.

One person Greiner doesn’t have to convince is USC coach Chad Holbrook, who calls him the heart and soul of the team.

“I’ve had a chance to coach some major league catchers in my 20 years of coaching baseball, and there’s one still in the big leagues now,” Holbrook said. “Grayson Greiner is as good of a catcher as I’ve ever coached. He’s represented this university and this baseball program in a special way.”

This week, Greiner was named one of 15 semifinalists for the 2014 Johnny Bench Award that’s presented to the top college catcher in the country.

“He could hit .200 in my book and be an All-American because of the way he handles our pitching staff and because of the way he controls the running game of our opponents,” Holbrook said. “He doesn’t have to hit for me, and I still think he’s the best catcher in college baseball. I know those USA coaches feel the same way I do.”

Last summer, Team USA coach Jim Schlossnagle praised Greiner for his ability to handle a pitching staff filled with future first-round picks. Schlossnagle was most impressed by Greiner as a person, calling him soft-spoken, humble, coachable and a great teammate.

Greiner displays that giving personality off the field. He never fails to walk through the autograph line at Carolina Stadium after games, win or lose. He understands USC’s large fan base includes many kids who look up to him.

“If it’s some kid’s only chance to ever see me in person, I don’t want to be the jerk that goes up to the locker room, takes a shower and leaves,” he said. “I want to make that kid’s day and give him an autograph or take a picture with him or give him a high-five.”

His smarts and playing ability and good-guy persona earned him recognition as USC’s male athlete of the year for 2013-14, an honor he shared with football and basketball player Bruce Ellington.

Seddon, who has emerged as USC’s closer this season, appreciates his friend’s consistency as a catcher and a roommate. The two have bonded as similar low-key personalities who go about their business as efficiently as possible.

“He’s calm and collected. He focuses on one thing, and that’s winning. He doesn’t care about individual stats,” Seddon said. “He got the chance to start as a freshman, and he has grown so much since then. He has had a great career, but I think he’s peaking right now and playing his best baseball. I wouldn’t have any other catcher in the country back there.”

All the roommates are typical college students who love doing everything together. But Pankake isn’t quite as reverential. The third baseman starts chuckling as he dissects the concept of Greiner’s seeming perfection.

“He lacks a little bit in the common-sense department when we’re in the apartment. We like to give him a hard time about that,” Pankake said, telling a story about one of Greiner’s misadventures getting gas in his car during their freshman summer.

“He just thought the nozzle was bigger because he was in North Carolina. It wouldn’t fit so he’s just guiding it,” Pankake said. “He actually was putting diesel in his car, and he drives a 4Runner so it’s, obviously, not a diesel engine. He made it about 50 feet until it started to shake and black smoke was coming out.”

His roommates love to give him a hard time about that, as well as the time that he hit a pole at a gas station while making a Sunday morning run to get energy drinks before a game.

“Driving a car is definitely not one of his fortes. I don’t know why I still get in the car with him, but I let him drive every now and then,” Pankake said.

The affection is obvious, but change is coming soon, as all four players are likely to be drafted and head in separate directions this summer in professional baseball. Pankake talks of them coming back to Columbia in the offseason to live together and work out.

One other person also will miss the daily routine at Carolina Stadium – Mark Greiner. After 40-plus years of supporting the Gamecocks from his playing days through his son’s playing days, he and his wife Karen have enjoyed the experience. He admits to a lot of mixed emotions.

“It has gone so fast, and to watch his progression has been extremely rewarding,” Mark Greiner said. “That friendship is what we’ve really developed. It’s not just a father and son, it’s a friendship and it’s a bond. We talk almost every day, and I hear the excitement in his voice about his team and his teammates and where they think they can go. I’m very proud.”

The son has the same pride about a career that began with him in the starting lineup and kept getting better.

“I had an idea that I would have the opportunity, but I’m very blessed how it worked out,” Greiner said.

But he’s not quite done yet. There just might be another big grand slam coming in the NCAA tournament.

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