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February 4, 2013

Holbrook pleased where things stand

South Carolina scrimmaged on Monday for the fifth time during preseason camp in front of a sparse crowd at Carolina Stadium. The season-opener is at 3 p.m. on Feb. 15 against Liberty in the first of a three-game weekend series.

Home -- CF Tanner English, LF Graham Saiko, 2B Max Schrock, C Grayson Greiner, 3B LB Dantzler, 1B Erik Payne, SS DC Arendas, RF TJ Costen, DH Curt Britt, EH Chase Vergason, EH Weber Pike

Visitor -- 2B Ahmad Christian, CF Shon Carson, SS Connor Bright, 3B George Iskenderian, 1B Kyle Martin, DH Brison Celek, RF Sean Sullivan, C Dante Rosenberg, LF Patrick Harrington, DH Ryan Ripken

Freshman second baseman Max Schrock exhibited why he is one of the most acclaimed newcomers on the roster, ripping a three-run homer in the ninth to cap Monday's scrimmage, which wrapped up the second full weekend of preseason camp.

Schrock drove in four runs on the afternoon, starting with an RBI groundout in the seventh that succeeded a sacrifice fly by Graham Saiko. TJ Costen singled home Erik Payne in the eighth.

Costen collected three hits, capping a nearly perfect weekend at the plate for the Virginia Beach, Va., native. Sunday, he had an RBI double, single and walk. So, while his defense is often an adventure, Costen is solidifying a place in the lineup

"He's up right now," coach Chad Holbrook said after the scrimmage. "He was down the first weekend when he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. He was good this weekend. He had a home run, a triple and hit some balls awfully hard."

Ahmad Christian continued to state a case for a permanent place in the lineup with yet another solid day at the plate. Batting leadoff for a visiting team consisting mainly of reserves, he had two hits. Shon Carson, batting second behind Christian, reached base twice.

"Ahmad has been steady and gotten his share of hits and played well," Holbrook said. "One of things we can do if we want both those guys (Costen and Christian) in the lineup is we can DH one. But Payne has been swinging the bat awfully well. That has been encouraging to see. He has solidified himself in there some way."

Nine pitchers took the mound on Monday, but the only one who right now figures prominently into USC's plans for the season is closer Tyler Webb. Freshman left-hander Tyler Jackson and junior-college transfer Cameron Tewksbury started and worked three innings apiece.

Sophomore Drake Thomason worked two innings, while Alex Satterfield pitched three innings for the visiting team.

"I feel good about some of those kids to throw strikes," Holbrook said. "(But) a lot of those guys are going to struggle to find innings this year, for sure. Our front line guys threw Saturday and Sunday. Some of these guys are competing for spots and some competed pretty well.

"It depends on what the score is and the opponent and how well we're doing. We didn't light it up with runs today, so the kids threw strikes. It's hard to score with these bats and the way the game is. We had a lot of quality at-bats. "

Overall, Holbrook was pleased with how the Gamecocks played over the course of the last three scrimmages, although the quality of defense at a couple of outfield positions was spotty.

"I felt a lot better about this weekend than last weekend," Holbrook said. "It was a lot more competitive. Things are starting to sort themselves out a little bit from the position-players standpoint. Our pitchers continue to throw well.

"We played with a better sense of urgency this weekend. We played great defense in the infield. The outfield defense wasn't great, but we'll shore that up. Our infielders have played terrific. Our catchers have been terrific. The pitchers did well. We had some competitive at-bats. All in all, it was a much better weekend than the opening weekend, as it should be."

While Joey Pankake, the presumptive starter at shortstop, sat out most of the weekend with a jammed finger on his right hand, the injury isn't considered serious and he could have played had the games been for real, Holbrook said.

"We're just being very cautious and very careful with him," Holbrook said. "If we had been playing a game today, he would have played. A couple of treatments this week and he'll be ready to go next weekend."

With catchers Grayson Greiner and Dante Rosenberg, a double-play combination of Pankake and Schrock and Tanner English in center, the Gamecocks possess the proverbial strength up the middle.

"If you're strong up the middle defensively, you have a chance to have a good team," Holbrook said. "We feel good about our two catchers, our middle infielders and our centerfielder. We'll be strong defensively up the middle, for sure."

Continuing his quest to become a switch-hitter, English batted from the left side twice on Monday. He has consistently made contact and avoided striking out, something he did 71 times in 2012.

"Knock on wood, his strikeouts are way down," Holbrook said. "He's closer to first base and he's hitting the ball on the ground more. He will have some bad at-bats, but his number of strikeouts is going to be a lot less this year.

"(Switch-hitting) will hopefully cut down on his strikeouts and increase his on-base percentage. He's been a lot better. He's a much more patient hitter now than he was last year at this time. He has a little more confidence in himself."

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