COLUMBIA — The nature of college baseball, as it exists now and for the foreseeable future, invites the kind of wonderful tension that unfolded last Feb. 17, when South Carolina opened its season as the two-time defending national champion.
The Gamecocks needed a run in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 2-1 win over Virginia Military Institute, a team with vastly inferior talent. The next day, the Gamecocks again beat VMI by just a run, 3-2.
So began a season in which 28 of USC’s 69 games were decided by one run. The Gamecocks went 15-13 in those tight games and rode the drama all the way to the College World Series finals, which they lost to Arizona.
In 2011, college baseball debuted weaker bats that resulted in fewer home runs and more tight games. The Gamecocks played 16 one-run games that season, the same number as they played in 2010. But they went 13-3 in 2011, four wins better than 2010.
From 2010-12, USC went 37-23 in one-run games, compared to 14-19 in the previous three seasons, when the Gamecocks made just one NCAA tournament Super Regional and zero World Series.
Their ability to handle nervous moments played a huge role in the past three seasons becoming the best run of any USC sport ever. But when they open this season Friday afternoon at home against Liberty, they will do it without any stars from their three consecutive World Series trips.
This is a new chapter of USC baseball in every way, with former top assistant coach Chad Holbrook replacing Ray Tanner.
Many will wonder if Holbrook can steady the Gamecocks the way Tanner so often did.
But USC’s unflappable approach over the past three seasons also stemmed largely from how its players handled tension, like when they lost the first game of the 2010 World Series and ran the table, or when they lost the second game of last year’s World Series, then won three games in two days to make the finals.
Will this group handle tension as deftly?
Some of its most important players will need to do it while experiencing changes, either with their position at the plate, in the starting rotation, on the field, or the most jarring adjustment of all – that of a freshman trying to significantly contribute in the Southeastern Conference.
Tanner English and Joey Pankake know what that is like. Both started as freshmen last season – English in left field, Pankake at shortstop. Both will have to offer more this season, as English moves to center field, his natural position, and switch hits, after batting righty his entire career.
“Surprisingly, from the left side, the first day I went over there, I noticed myself seeing the ball a lot better,” English said. “That’s why, in the fall (practices), I didn’t struggle as much with the off-speed (pitches) and the sliders.”
English hit .298 last season, Pankake .264. They are USC’s leading returners in batting average. While English has to lower his strikeouts, from 71, Pankake’s production must increase, too.
“We need Joey to have a big year,” Holbrook said. “He can be an All-American type player. We’re not going to have the season that we want to have if Joey Pankake has a mediocre year. He’s that important to us. We think he’s a terrific player.”
Despite English and Pankake’s contributions last season, the Gamecocks leaned mainly on pitching. Opponents hit .221 against them, and USC had a 2.97 earned run average, compared to .227 and a 2.45 in 2011. But the Gamecocks needed pitching more last season, because their batting average was .265 and they scored 5.1 runs per game - down from .294 and 6.3 in 2011.
With ace pitcher Michael Roth now gone, sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery is angling for the No. 1 spot. He developed into the third starter last season. Before the NCAA tournament, he had a 4.20 ERA with 45 strikeouts and eight walks. In two starts during the postseason, including an elimination game in the World Series, he had a 1.23 ERA with 12 strikeouts and two walks.
Montgomery still displays the mellow demeanor that ushered him through those games, and he is still a gangly 6-foot-3. But he is physically stronger, which is important, because his innings will jump from the 74 2/3 he threw last season.
“Definitely my mechanics are a lot smoother now that I’m stronger,” he said. “I can get my arm through easier with less hitch in my mechanics, so it’s more smooth. The ball moves a little bit more and a little later, and I picked up a couple miles per hour. (Being stronger) just puts less stress on my arm, so I can go longer and not have to throw as hard as I can.”
Senior LB Dantzler no longer has to throw at all – or at least not as much. Dantzler moved from third base to first, to replace leading hitter Christian Walker.
“It’s not much different (than third base), honestly,” Dantzler said. “It’s been a little adjustment, kind of learning the bunt defenses from the other side of the field. But other than that, I’m very comfortable.”
Holbrook made the move, which Dantzler embraced, for several reasons. Dantzler struggled defensively at third during fall practices, and Holbrook doesn’t want him to worry about defense. Dantzler’s 10 home runs and 48 runs batted in both ranked second to Walker’s 11 homers and 55 RBIs last season. Dantzler sliding to first also lets both Chase Vergason and Max Schrock play. Vergason, a senior, goes from second to third, making room at second for Schrock.
If you’ve never heard of Schrock, you soon will. He impressed Holbrook so much during the fall that Holbrook plans to hit him third in the batting order. Walker was USC’s No. 3 hitter from his first game as a freshman, in 2010. So Holbrook realizes this is a lofty responsibility for Schrock.
“Is it unfair a little bit for a freshman to have those expectations?” Holbrook said. “It may have been. But Max can handle it. Christian Walker handled it.”
Schrock is a strong hitter, but at 5-9 and 175 pounds, he doesn’t look the part of No. 3 hitter, as the broad-shouldered Walker did. That matters little if Schrock maintains the steady mental approach that has impressed teammates more than any single swing of Schrock’s bat.
“More than half of baseball, to me, I think is confidence,” Schrock said. “You’ve got to be confident or you’re not going to play well. Playing in this program, there’s going to be some pressure. You’re playing in front of 8,000 people. I think part of success is going to have to come from how you deal with that pressure. I feel that I can do that.”