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March 11, 2013

Look back, look ahead: SEC play starts

It is indeed ironic that in a week when the South Carolina pitching staff hurled three shutouts and allowed just nine runs in five games, the SEC rewarded a Gamecock player for his offensive prowess.

Sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake earned the prestigious honor by sparking five straight victories for USC last week, hitting .438 (7-for-16) with four homers, nine RBIs and seven runs scored. He smacked a pair of three-run long balls in each of the wins over Ball State before homering twice against Rider.

His solo homer on Sunday represented the lone run for either team in a 1-0 victory that completed a hard-earned three-game sweep for the Gamecocks over the pesky Broncs.

Pankake was also named a Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week by Collegiate Baseball, one of four players earning the honor.

In 14 games, Pankake is hitting .326 (15-for-46) with four homers, 14 RBIs and 11 runs scored. Currently on a seven-game hitting streak, Pankake had two homers and a .264 batting average in 2012.

"We've always thought Joey was a really good hitter," USC coach Chad Holbrook said Monday on 107.5 The Game. "Now, everybody is seeing what we see every day in practice. He's a strong kid that works very hard in the weight room. The ball is coming off his bat with a little more authority this year than a year ago.

"He is putting up some power numbers, which is really god for us. Having LB (Dantzler) and Joey in the middle of the lineup, a couple of guys who can hit home runs, makes it easier for us and tougher on our opponents."

Pankake has also excelled defensively after a couple of errors early in the season. His stellar work at shortstop is a major reason USC that has a gaudy .978 team fielding percentage with only 12 errors in 15 games.

"We've played great defense," Holbrook said. "Anytime you're over .970, you're playing great defense. If we pitch and play defense, we'll always be tough to beat. We feel like we're getting better offensively."

USC carries a six-game winning streak into Tuesday's 7 p.m. home contest against USC Upstate. The Gamecocks also face Davidson on Wednesday in the final non-conference tuneup before SEC play begins on Friday at Missouri.

A perfect 5-0 week catapulted the Gamecocks into the top five of the Baseball America poll for the first time this season. USC is behind North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Oregon State and Louisville. USC squares off with the Commodores in Columbia on May 3-5.

Sunday, Nolan Belcher (seven innings) and Tyler Webb (two innings) combined on an improbable 11-hit shutout over Rider, which stranded seven runners in the final three innings.

In addition to owning an astonishing strikeout-to-walk ratio of 30-to-1, Belcher is second in the SEC in innings pitched (27 2-3), fourth in strikeouts (30) and tied for sixth in victories (three).

Belcher extended his scoreless streak to 18 innings after working seven-plus shutout innings with no walks and seven strikeouts in the 1-0 victory over Rider on Sunday. He is 3-1 on the year with a 1.63 ERA in four starts. Opponents are batting just .215 against him.

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Pankake and USC pitching staff
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 5 in Baseball America, No. 5 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 7 in PerfectGameUSA

March 5 vs. Ball State, W 10-0
March 6 vs. Ball State, W 14-4
March 8 vs. Rider, W 2-0
March 9 vs. Rider, W 9-5
Match 10 vs. Rider, W 1-0

SEC PLAY BEGINS: Later this week, USC will board a charter flight to Columbia, Mo., for a three-game series against Missouri, marking the start of conference play. However, USC must first deal with a pair of regional non-conference foes.

Junior right-hander Forrest Koumas will make his first start of the season on Tuesday against USC Upstate, with freshman southpaw Jack Wynkoop, who retired the first 16 batters he faced in a 10-0 win over Ball State last week , expected to pitch as well. Right now, Holbrook isn't even thinking about who might pitch on Wednesday against Davidson.

"We'll go with Koumas and then we'll see how (Tuesday) goes," Holbrook said. "Around here, we try to win our next game. Right now, I don't want to think about Davidson on Wednesday. Everybody who is fresh and available could be used tomorrow. We need both Koumas and Wynkoop fresh and ready for the weekend. We're going to use them both, and then make a determination after the game on who we go with on Wednesday."

Colby Holmes has struggled in his last two starts, yielding a combined nine runs and 13 hits with seven strikeouts and five walks in nine innings against Clemson and Rider.

"We have to get Colby Holmes pitching like Colby Holmes," Holbrook said. "He has to throw the ball the way he is capable of. He will have a great senior year, no doubt in my mind, but he is going through a rough patch right now. It's magnified when you have Jordan Montgomery out. We're trying to get our rotation stable. Colby has to iron out a few mechanical issues."

Will centerfielder Tanner English, listed as doubtful for the USC Upstate and Davidson games after sitting out the Rider series, come off the injured list in time for the weekend series at Missouri?

"I think he was getting a little better yesterday at the park," Holbrook said. "He did shag some flies in center during batting practice before the game. He ran around some, which is encouraging to see. We're in a wait-and-see mode right now.

"We have to be careful and take it slow with him. My fingers are crossed he will be able to help us some this weekend, but I don't know in what capacity. I'm not overly optimistic right now that he'll start in center field on Friday, but I will remain hopeful."

Shon Carson, a reserve running back on the football team, started the final two games in center field against Rider and went 3-for-7 at the plate with one RBI and one run scored. But he also has six strikeouts in 11 at-bats this season.

Carson should remain in the lineup for the pair of midweek games against Upstate and Davidson until English's status is known.

"Shon is a very coachable kid," Holbrook said. "He has a long ways to go because he is a little bit raw for a baseball player. I just told him this past weekend to put the ball in play. He's too talented an athlete to be striking out five and six times in a row.

"He has some power, so he wants to hit the ball over the bleachers. But he can help us more by hitting ground balls up the middle and ground balls to shortstop and beating them out and making consistent contact. We asked him to do that this weekend and he did it. He doesn't have to hit the ball far or hard."

Tuesday vs. USC Upstate, 7 p.m.
Wednesday vs. Davidson, 7 p.m.
Friday at Missouri, 7 p.m.
Saturday at Missouri, 3 p.m.
Sunday at Missouri, 2 p.m.

* The three whitewashings last week dropped the team ERA to a microscopic 1.96 in 133 innings pitched. The staff has 132 strikeouts to just 37 walks, an impressive ratio of 3.6-to-1. Opponents are hitting only .201 with 17 extra-base hits in 15 games.

* Grayson Greiner was one of 48 catchers in the nation named to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List released on Monday.

* Senior third baseman Chase Vergason has reached base safely in 14 consecutive games. Vergason is USC's best hitter at the moment with a .340 batting average (16-for-47) with nine RBIs and 11 runs scored. His on-base percentage of .475 ranks among the team's leaders.

* Evan Beal worked six scoreless innings in the 2-0 win on Friday over Rider with just one hit and two walks allowed while striking out six. He retired 14 consecutive batters in one stretch en route to keeping his ERA at 0.00 in 9 2-3 innings with two walks and 11 strikeouts.

* After three scoreless appearances and earning two saves last week, closer Tyler Webb has pitched 9 1-3 scoreless innings in eight relief appearances with five saves this season. Webb has 15 strikeouts compared to three walks and opponents are hitting just .167 against him.

* Freshman second baseman Max Schrock hit .353 (6-for-17) in five games last week with three runs scored, three RBIs and three stolen bases. Schrock and Vergason lead USC with five multi-hit games, while Schrock and Dantzler top the Gamecocks with three multi-RBI games apiece.

* Sophomore outfielder Connor Bright made four starts in right field last week, going 4-for-13 (.308) at the plate with a pair of RBIs and three runs scored. Bright homered in Saturday's 9-5 win over Rider. Overall, he is hitting .333 (8-for-24) with four runs scored and five RBIs for the season.

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