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February 1, 2013
Graham Saiko may turn out to be a plus left fielder and a very talented hitter this year, but he's got to work on his publicity skills. Despite having a last name that dictates a thrash-metal walk-up song and the potential for a marketing bonanza, Saiko quietly and plainly answered questions during No. 7 South Carolina's media day.
Yes, it's pronounced "Psycho." But the player, at least from the first impression, is anything but.
"It was definitely a good last name to have in high-school football," the soft-spoken but mile-a-minute junior said. "Made it a lot easier. But if you've been around me enough, you know I'm pretty mild-tempered. I can get excited and stuff every once in a while, so I might have to use it to my advantage."
As long as he saves the excitement for the field, or more accurately, throws it onto the basepaths, he'll be doing his job this season.
Landing in Columbia after a circling route, Saiko is being looked at as a huge gap-filler in the Gamecocks' quest to make it four straight appearances in the College World Series. USC lost outfielders Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews after last year, and while hold-over Tanner English is back and moved to his natural center field, USC needed guys in the corners.
Saiko was an intriguing prospect, an Indiana native who signed with Southern Illinois out of high school but switched to Oklahoma State when he saw that SIU did not have the major that he planned on learning. He redshirted as a freshman with the Cowboys, so he again transferred, landing at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College.
A .342 average and 43 RBIs in 48 games got him on USC's radar, and he quickly committed when coach Chad Holbrook offered. Saiko spent the summer with the Columbia Blowfish, where he batted .288 with 24 RBIs and swiped 19 bases in 23 attempts.
Having seen plenty of him over the summer, and knowing that assistant coach Brian Buscher was already working with him (Buscher was the Blowfish's skipper last year), Holbrook saw that Saiko was a perfect addition for his batting strategy. With English set to switch-hit this year and hopefully ignite a speed-based offensive game, Holbrook also wanted a quality hitter with speed behind English, and Saiko was that.
"I'm not a home-run hitter by any stretch of the imagination," said Saiko, who hit four dingers with the Blowfish. "I just take a good approach, I have an idea of what I want to do when I get to the plate. That and just execute what the coaches want me to do. I try not to over-think."
Holbrook saw "a prototypical two-hole hitter" and he just had to find a position for him. An infielder by trade, Holbrook envisioned putting Saiko beside shortstop Joey Pankake to supply some veteran leadership to a player who struggled defensively early last season. That changed over the summer.
With the Blowfish, Saiko played all over the infield and had a holey glove at every spot. He had 18 errors, and once Holbrook completed his recruiting class and saw that freshman Max Schrock was going to be a regular at second base, he asked Saiko to think about a change.
"It's kind of funny how recruiting works," Holbrook said. "I recruited Graham to be an infield guy, maybe kind of help Joey out, have an experienced guy in there beside him. But he's kind of found his home in the outfield."
Saiko would be in left field if the season started today, with TJ Costen in right. He's still learning defense, but he's already got the hitting part down.
"It's a little bit different, because in the infield, everything is ground balls and now everything is fly balls," said Saiko, who only struck out twice in over 50 at-bats in the fall. "It's a little bit different but all the coaches are making sure I get enough reps to make sure I'm feeling comfortable before the season starts."
If English can harness the switch-hitting role and take advantage of his speed, the Gamecocks can put pressure on opponents right away instead of falling into their familiar trap of waiting for the big knock. While USC got plenty of big hits to get to within two wins of another national championship last year, the offensive futility also helped define the Gamecocks' stay in Omaha.
Saiko has championship experience, having helped Buscher and the Blowfish win their first Coastal Plain League championship in August. He knows exactly what he's up against, coming into a program that has been the sport's jewel for three years.
"Anytime you get the opportunity to play at a program like South Carolina, there's a lot of good players," Saiko said. "Sometimes you have to move and play different positions. That's what I want to do. I want to come in and play and try to contribute. If that means going out and playing left field, I'll do it. Anything to help the team win."
Now to do something about that last name. There's got to be something crazy he can do. Eyeblack smeared down his cheeks? Pantomiming breaking his bat over his knee on his walk-up? Head-banging after a base hit?
"Maybe," he smiled. "I might have to get the crowd pumped up. It's a good last name to have."
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