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February 10, 2013

Scrimmages over, Holbrook assesses USC



South Carolina scrimmaged for the ninth and final time during preseason camp on Sunday in front of several hundred supporters at Carolina Stadium. The 2013 season-opener is at 3 p.m. on Friday against Liberty in the first of a three-game series.

Home -- LF Graham Saiko, SS Joey Pankake, 1B LB Dantzler, C Grayson Greiner, DH Erik Payne, RF TJ Costen, 3B Chase Vergason, EH Tanner English
Visitor -- RF Ahmad Christian, CF Shon Carson, 2B Connor Bright, 3B George Iskenderian, DH Brison Celek, 1B Kyle Martin, SS DC Arendas, C Dante Rosenberg, LF Sean Sullivan, EH Ryan Ripken

SCRIMMAGE SUMMARY: Because of stiff competition at multiple spots among the everyday lineup and pitching staff, Chad Holbrook must deal with plenty of questions about the roster before Friday's season's lid-lifter against Liberty.

However, he answered two of them after Sunday's scrimmage at Carolina Stadium. Erik Payne, a junior who has enjoyed a tremendous camp at the plate and had a double and two walks Sunday, will likely be the designated hitter in the Opening Day lineup, Holbrook said.

In addition, Holbrook confirmed that football players Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson have earned spots on the 2013 roster, although both players have struggled defensively at times in the outfield. But their speed and hitting skills (Christian has three singles and scored a run on Sunday) render them irresistible.

"Shon and Ahmad haven't played much outfield in the last couple of years, so they're learning that," Holbrook said. "They will. Good athletes get better at that really quick. I expect them to do that.

"I've been tickled to death with how Ahmad has played. He's probably one of our toughest outs. He's going to get in there and he's going to play."

Left-hander Jordan Montgomery and senior righty Colby Holmes confirmed the belief of the coaches when preseason camp started - they are USC's two pitchers and will pitch on the weekend. The identity of the third weekend starter, though, remains an open question.

Which pitcher throws on which day is still a topic of debate between Holbrook and pitching coach Jerry Meyers. Still, the odds of Montgomery or Holmes starting on Opening Day are overwhelming.

Coming into the weekend, the battle for Sunday mostly involved senior Nolan Belcher and freshman Jack Wynkoop, but senior Patrick Sullivan threw himself into the discussion with an outstanding outing on Sunday.

"Obviously, Colby and Jordan are going to throw for sure on the weekend," Holbrook said. "I don't know the order yet. We have to have some conversations with (Meyers) about that Sunday spot. Wynkoop and Nolan Belcher are in the mix. Patrick Sullivan, with the way he has thrown, is in the mix too. He threw the best since he's been here yesterday. So, we have some deserving guys in that spot. We'll make that decision sometime early in the week."

Holbrook expects to make the final decisions on cuts by Wednesday and releasing the final 35-man roster on Thursday, about 24 hours before the first pitch against Liberty, which is coached by former USC assistant Jim Toman.

Holbrook said that six of the eight non-pitching starting jobs have been finalized.

"I'm very encouraged. We have a number of talented guys that deserve to play," Holbrook said. "The unfortunate part for me is we have more than nine. It won't be an easy deal to put together the starting lineup. But that's a good problem to have. We have a number of guys that deserve to play. Some guys have stood out and some guys have really worked hard. It's going to be a very difficult call. Some guys are going to be left out that deserve to be on it.

"The things I'm most pleased with are the way our pitchers have thrown the ball and the way we've played defense, especially in the infield and behind the plate. We have a chance to be in most games because of the way we'll pitch and play defense."

Tanner English didn't take the field defensively on Sunday, but made four trips to the plate and continued to work on becoming a solid switch-hitter, batting twice from each side of the plate. English has cut down his strikeouts during preseason camp, a key goal when camp started in late January.

"The switch-hitting thing has been good for him," Holbrook said. "He's making contact a lot more. That will increase his on-base percentage, and that's what is most important for Tanner."

Kyle Martin continued to challenge LB Dantzler for the starting job at first base with two doubles and a walk on Sunday.

"That was a big day for him because he has struggled," Holbrook said. "He's had a tough preseason. But today it was good to see him swing the bat well. He's big and strong and can put a charge in some balls. I don't think he's going to start at first base on Opening Day, but he'll get his fair share of at-bats."

On Sunday, the visiting team (reserves) took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when Ryan Ripken drove home DC Arendas with an infield single into the hole between short and third.

Ripken had two singles on Sunday and has displayed steady improvement at the plate over the past week or so. However, much work remains before he earns a spot in the USC lineup.

"He did fine this weekend. But he hasn't played as well (overall) as he would have liked to up until this weekend," Holbrook said. "He's had some pressure on him. All eyes are on him because of his last name. That's probably unfair for Ryan. He did have a good weekend and that was good to see."

The home team (starters) knotted the score in the bottom half of the second when Payne doubled to left, advanced to third on a groundout and strolled home on a RBI single by TJ Costen.

The visitors regained the lead with two outs in the top of the fourth when backup catcher Dante Rosenberg singled, moved to second on a walk and third on a single by Ripken. Reliever Austin Hill balked Rosenberg home to make it 2-1.

Evening the score in the bottom half of the fourth, the home team strung together a single by Dantzler, a walk to Payne and a run-scoring single by freshman Curt Britt to right off Kris Nelson in the bottom of the fourth.

Rosenberg's two-out, two-run homer to left gave the visitors a 4-2 lead in the top of the sixth. Minutes later, Joey Pankake greeted new hurler Cameron Tewksbury in crowd-pleasing style by powering the left-hander's first offering of the inning over the left-field wall for a solo homer in the bottom half of the inning.

Pankake's long ball proved to be the final run of the scrimmage for the scrimmage. The visitors added three runs off Drake Thomason in the top of the seventh when Bright doubled in Christian and Carson.

The home team wasted a golden scoring opportunity in the eighth when Britt's sharp grounder to short with the bases loaded turned into an inning-ending double play.

Closer Tyler Webb worked the top of the eighth for his second appearance of the weekend, retiring the side on three consecutive fly-outs. Ten different pitchers took the mound on Sunday, some of whom presumably won't make the final 35-man roster.

PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
C - Grayson Greiner
1B - LB Dantzler
2B - Max Schrock
3B - Chase Vergason
SS - Joey Pankake
LF - Graham Saiko
CF - Tanner English
RF - TJ Costen
DH - Erik Payne
SP - Jordan Montgomery or Colby Holmes

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