COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s Chad Holbrook is looking to fill slots on the pitching mound and in the infield as he tries to get the Gamecocks back to the College World Series.
Holbrook acknowledged the coaches did not have confidence that relievers – other than lefthanders Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb – would be effective at shutting down opponents. So the Gamecocks used Westmoreland and Webb primarily down the stretch to get out of jams.
He’s also taking steps to tighten up the defense, moving shortstop Joey Pankake out of the position he’s held for two years. Pankake, also a pitching prospect, has made 34 of the Gamecocks’ 122 errors the past two years. Pankake could play some first base, outfield or be a designated hitter along with providing support on the mound.
“There’s going to be some new faces in some new roles,” Holbrook said Tuesday.
Pankake has a live arm and could be the answer to who’ll take over Webb’s role as closer. He’ll get his swings in the lineup, too, since Pankake will be the team’s top returning hitter as his .311 average, 11 home runs and 42 RBIs were second only to departing senior LB Dantzler.
“It just depends on how valuable Joey becomes to us as a pitcher,” Holbrook said.
The shortstop spot is likely to go to junior college signee Marcus Mooney, the younger brother of Peter Mooney, who played the position for the Gamecocks’ 2011 national champions. The other shortstop candidate, DC Arendas, could see time at third base for last year’s senior Chase Vergason.
As far as pitching, Holbrook has very few locks on his staff. Jordan Montgomery had a 1.48 ERA and a 6-1 mark in his sophomore season and appears to be the strongest candidate for the Friday night starting spot held down this past season by Nolan Belcher. After that, it’s up in the air. Jack Wynkoop showed promise as a freshman going 7-1 with 11 starts. Joel Seddon was a 20th-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays two years ago out of high school, but has struggled to make an impact on the mound.
Holbrook, though, believes he’ll have a strong core of players to build around next year. Grayson Griener, currently catcher for the USA Baseball Collegiate national team, will be rock solid behind the plate. The outfield is fast and effective with Tanner English, Connor Bright and Graham Saiko, although incoming players Elliott Caldwell and Brock Maxwell will push for playing time. And Holbrook expects second baseman Max Schrock to improve on his strong second half – he finished tied for the team lead with 21 multi-hit games – as a sophomore.
Holbrook also expects a smoother second season as the man on the dugout’s top step. He took the job last summer after 19 years as an assistant coach at his alma mater, North Carolina, and with the Gamecocks.
He said he leaned heavily on his friend, former coach and current athletic director Ray Tanner, to talk baseball and bounce decisions off of at times last year.
He was happy the team finished 43-20 and extended its streak of 40-win seasons to 14, the longest current stretch in the Southeastern Conference. Still, Holbrook believed his club had the makeup for a fourth straight trip to the College World Series and was disappointed the Gamecocks lost the best-of-3 NCAA super regional series at North Carolina.
Holbrook says he’s gained some confidence after this season. He won’t drastically alter the way things had worked under Tanner, but will impart more of his own style to practices and game management.
“We’ve got find our identity as we look forward to 2014,” he said. “I like that we’ve got some older guys. People say we’re going to be pretty good, so we’ll see.”