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January 25, 2013

Schrock already handling the pressure

So there's Max Schrock, a freshman at one of the best programs in college baseball. He has been deemed good enough to start at No. 7 South Carolina, fresh off three straight appearances in the College World Series national championship series, and his coach has already labeled him the best hitter on the team.

He plays second base, once fielded so effortlessly by the lovable dirt-eater that defined USC baseball, Scott Wingo. He would hit third if the season began today, a batting spot that was helmed by another freshman phenom, Christian Walker, for the great majority of the past three years. And he wears No. 22 on his back, a number last worn by Matt Price, the grizzled closer who feared no batter or situation, and almost always got the job done.

Pressure? Many mortals would have already crumbled.

"Playing in this program, there's going to be some pressure," Schrock said on Friday, as USC opened preseason practice. "You're playing in front of 8,000 people, you're playing in front of the best crowd in the nation. So there's going to be some pressure. I think a part of success is going to have to come from how you deal with that pressure. I feel that I can do that."

That's good, because he's already under the microscope before he's gotten in the batter's box for the first time. Lord help him if he hits a routine fly ball in his first at-bat, and a strikeout will probably mean getting put on the rack.

Kidding aside, Schrock is one of the best freshman talents to come to USC in quite some time. He was anointed the team's best hitter early in fall practice and Chad Holbrook shuffled his position players in order to get the hyped rookie on the field every day.

Schrock's a natural at second, so incumbent Chase Vergason moved to third base. Former third baseman LB Dantzler went across the diamond to first base. "Max first had to prove himself, to see if he could do it, and he did," Vergason said. "He's a very talented player."

The hitting, a compact left-handed swing that can drive liners to all fields, has been constant. Friday was an abbreviated workout so the few fans that dared to challenge the winter weather were deprived of seeing him, but Schrock should be back in action on Saturday and Sunday.

He's ready for the games to begin, and for the pressure to rise. He admitted that he may struggle a bit this season, but Schrock knows that he can get through it if that happens.

"I can feel it a little bit, but I feel that I'm mature enough that I can handle it," Schrock said. "And I can deal with it. I know there's going to be struggles playing here. Playing in the SEC, there's going to be really great pitchers, there's going to be older guys. I'm fully away that I may struggle this year. A bit."

When Walker came in for the 2010 season, coach Ray Tanner was never shy about the kid's abilities. His vision and awareness were off the charts, and he could blast balls over the fence or punch them into the gaps.

Walker lived up to it, becoming a one-man wrecking crew during the first series of the year. He spent the next month wondering where the hits went, before he re-discovered himself midway through the year and became one of the best hitters in program history.

Holbrook used that comparison with his newest acquisition. "Is it unfair a little bit? It may be," he said. "But he can handle it. Christian Walker handled it.

"I've put a lot of pressure on him because I think he's really, really good. I don't look at him as a freshman. His experience is way beyond what a normal freshman player's would be. If you ask every one of our coaches, every one of our players, who should hit third, I think it's unanimous that it would be Max Schrock."

Schrock already looked settled in on Friday, sporting a scruffy beard and answering questions with a veteran's poise. He knows he'll be looked at, but he'll handle it the same way he did in the fall when he was lauded from Day 1.

"I don't know that I expected it, I hoped for that to happen," Schrock said. "I guess it kind of just fell into place. I came in here and did what I needed to do.

"It's just the way I play my game. I don't try to be someone I'm not. I just play my game."

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