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January 31, 2013

Pankake, Schrock form new DP combo



For South Carolina shortstop Joey Pankake, the well-worn phrase "Freshman 15" took on an entirely different meaning last season.

Usually, the derisive term refers to the amount of weight gain some people experience during their first year of college.

However, in Pankake's world, the figure denotes the number of errors (plus one) the Easley native committed in the first 43 games in 2012, including six in the first 16 contests of his career, notably two in front of the home fans in the middle game of the annual early March three-game weekend series against Clemson.

But Pankake shook off the sluggish defensive start by committing only one error in the final 26 games, finishing his maiden voyage through the often stormy seas of major college baseball with a respectable .940 fielding percentage. He recorded 173 assists and 91 putouts compared to 17 assists.

While his defensive fortunes improved in the field, Pankake was able to handle his responsibilities at the plate, often batting first or second in the order. He concluded the regular season with a .293 batting average until a post-season slump (3-for-29 in Omaha) dropped his final number to .264.

However, Pankake finished second on the Gamecocks in doubles (15) and walks (31).

Coach Chad Holbrook's expectations remain as high for the strong-armed Pankake as a year ago, when he was eyed as USC's starting shortstop from the moment he stepped on campus.

"We need Joey to have a big year," Holbrook said recently. "He can be an All American-type player. He struggled early defensively last year, as we know. But he played terrific defense for us down the stretch when we needed it. He did it on a big stage. Playing defense the way he did in Omaha had to be an incredible experience for him."

Since Pankake has a year under his belt, Holbrook also expects him to show fearlessness in terms of making sure his voice is heard in the clubhouse and in the dugout, as well as the diamond.

"We expect Joey to be a leader of our team. We're counting on Joey," Holbrook said. "He needs to lead us in the dugout and he needs to lead us out on the field. He's the quarterback on the field playing the position he plays. We're not going to have the season we want to have if Joey Pankake has a mediocre year. He's that important to us. We think he's a terrific player."

Pankake lined up alongside second baseman Chase Vergason for most of the second half of last season, and the duo developed into one of the top double-play combinations in the SEC.

This year, Vergason will line up again in the infield alongside Pankake, but at a different location. Vergason is penciled in as the starting third baseman, with LB Dantzler shifting to first base.

Why was Vergason moved from the right to the left side of the infield? It cleared the path for phenom Max Schrock, perhaps the top performing freshman in the 2012-13 signing class.

Schrock has been sensational since the start of fall practice, and Holbrook plans to hit him third in the batting order, a pressure-packed spot for a first-year player less than a year removed from Cardinal Gibbons (N.C.) High School.

However, Holbrook is confident that the composed Schrock will handle the task with ease.

"I probably haven't been very fair to Max. I've put a lot of pressure on him just because I think he's really, really good," Holbrook said, sounding a lot like Ray Tanner years ago when Justin Smoak, Reese Havens and James Darnell joined the program. "If we played today, he would be in the three-hole. That's a heck of a compliment for a freshman.

"In fact, it's the ultimate compliment from the coaching staff. If you asked every one of our players and coaches who should hit in the three-hole, it would be unanimous that it should be Max Schrock. That's what Max has earned out on the field from the fall and the scrimmages and working out."

Battle-hardened by years of facing elite competition in high school and on the highly competitive AAU summer circuit, Schrock looks the part of a grizzled veteran.

"I don't look at Max as a freshman," Holbrook said. "Yes, he's a freshman in his first year in college, but he's played a lot of baseball. He's physically stronger than most freshmen, he's mature, he had a number of at-bats at a very high level in AAU ball in the summer preceding his freshman year here. His experience is way beyond what a normal freshman player's experience will be. I'm counting on Max to be a special player here.

"Is it unfair for a freshman player to have those expectations? It may be a little bit, but Max can handle it. Christian Walker handled it and he hit in the three-hole for us as a freshman. Max Schrock can handle it fine as well."

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