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September 13, 2013
Chad Holbrook, beginning his second season as South Carolina baseball coach, confidently offered four guarantees for Opening Day in February.
Barring serious injury, centerfielder Tanner English, catcher Grayson Greiner and infielder Joey Pankake will in the starting lineup with junior lefthander Jordan Montgomery (6-1, 2.48 ERA, 79 innings) on the mound at Carolina Stadium.
On the other hand, multiple positions were up for grabs among a large pool of candidates when fall practice started Friday afternoon at Carolina Stadium, particularly left field, right field, shortstop and third base.
Pankake's days as the starting shortstop are over after he committed 17 errors in 234 chances for a fielding percentage of .927 during a 2013 season that ended with a Game 3 loss to North Carolina in the Super Regional.
Initially, Pankake will get a look at third base, but could also pitch or even play the outfield in 2014. He played third in Friday's opening scrimmage.
"From a physical standpoint and a tools standpoint, that position fits him very well," Holbrook said. "He is physical, he's athletic and has a strong throwing arm. He can for some power. But he's also very versatile. Over the course of the weekend, he might play third base, first base and left field.
"But he's getting more and more comfortable each and every day at third base. That might be a good spot for him. But keep in mind it's still September. A lot of things can change between now and February. We have to find a place for Joey that best protects his arm because we certainly plan to pitch him quite a bit."
With Pankake removed from the shortstop picture, the key position will be the subject of a three-way battle between JUCO transfer Marcus Mooney, sophomore D.C. Arendas and freshman Jordan Gore (Conway).
"We feel like we have three very good shortstops that can fill the void after we moved Joey," Holbrook said. "We feel good about our shortstop situation. They're all three talented kids."
Mooney will try to follow in the footsteps of older brother Peter, the starting shortstop on the 2011 national championship team.
"When you watch Marcus field a ground ball, you're going to think it's Peter," Holbrook said. "They look identical. They're body language is the same. They're spitting images of each other. They play the game a little bit differently, but they play defense very similarly. Their skill set defensively is very close. Marcus is a gifted defender. He's a different offensive player than Peter was."
Mooney hit .327 with 30 RBI and 18 stolen bases as a freshman in 2013 and helped lead Palm Beach State College to the JUCO World Series and the championship game.
Arendas served as a backup middle infielder last season with one start, registering just 14 at-bats. Gore was rated the No. 13 draft prospect overall in the Palmetto State by Baseball America, and the No. 2 best shortstop by perfect Game. He batted .480 with 30 runs scored as a senior at Conway High School in the spring.
"That shortstop position is one that's going to be very competitive," Holbrook said. "D.C. is very gifted defensively and Jordan Gore has shown an incredible skill set in his first couple of weeks here. Jordan is going to pitch too."
Graham Saiko's sudden departure from the team last week, together with T.J. Costen's decision to transfer to USC-Aiken, leaves expected hard-fought position battles in left and right field for the Gamecock coaches to decide.
Costen, one of the fastest players on the team, batted .250 (20-for-80) with one homer and eight RBI last season. Saiko started 55 games in left a year ago, batting .263 with two homers and 29 RBI.
Holbrook again declined to disclose the details of why Saiko was dismissed.
English is secure as the everyday centerfielder and Connor Bright (.288, 4 HR, 22 RBI) emerged as a pleasant surprise in 2013 with 45 starts in right field.
"Tanner is obviously one of the best centerfielders in the country," Holbrook said. "We feel good about that spot. Connor played a lot in right field for us."
Newcomers jumping into the outfield mix at the outset of fall practice are high school standouts Zack Madden (Charleston), Gene Cone (Columbia) and Brock Maxwell (Suwanee, Ga.) along with JUCO transfer Elliott Caldwell from Spartanburg Methodist.
Maxwell was rated the No. 10 high school prospect in the state of Georgia and the No. 189 best high school prospect in the nation by perfect Game USA.
"He was one of the top outfielders in the country that we recruited very, very hard," Holbrook said. "He's a lefthander hitter and very athletic. He has a bright future here as well. Right now, we have a number of candidates (for the corner outfield jobs) and they're going to have to compete against each other and we'll see who wins those two jobs."
"It's comforting that Tanner and Connor return, but we do have some questions out there. We have some talented kids that will fill in nicely."
USC's fall roster consisting of 46 players (only 35 will make it) features 21 players from the 2013 signing class, including five JUCO signees.
"We're excited about our players that are returning and we're certainly excited about our newcomers as well," Holbrook said. "This recruiting class is certainly going to be ranked among the top five or 10 in the country."
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