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January 24, 2014

Some jobs still up for grabs



Even though the start of the 2014 college baseball season is still three weeks away, second-year coach Chad Holbrook knows the starters at several positions.

A few jobs, though, are still up for grabs.

Catcher Grayson Greiner (.298 batting average, four homers and 38 RBI in 2013), first baseman Kyle Martin (.288-2-10 in 80 at-bats), second baseman Max Schrock (.282-6-39), third baseman Joey Pankake (.311-11-42), centerfielder Tanner English (.283-1-25) and rightfielder Connor Bright (.288-4-22) have virtually locked up starting spots.

However, shortstop, left field, third weekend starter and the bullpen, particularly the setup and closer roles, remain questions marks. Here's a look at each of those positions.

SHORTSTOP: With Pankake moving from short to third following an inconsistent 2013 season defensively (17 errors; .927 fielding pct.), Holbrook is counting on either junior college transfer Marcus Mooney, younger brother of former Gamecock shortstop Peter Mooney, or sophomore D.C. Arendas (14 at-bats in 2013) to take over. True freshman Jordan Gore is the third option.

Mooney played one season at Palm Beach State College, batting .327 with 30 RBI and 18 stolen bases as PBSC reached the championship game of the 2013 JUCO World Series. Arendas appeared in 13 games with one start a year ago. Gore, a switch-hitter, batted .480 with 30 runs scored as a senior at Conway High School and was rated the No. 13-best overall Palmetto State prospect for the 2013 MLB Draft.

"We're excited about our guys there," Holbrook said of the shortstops. "Marcus Mooney is a lot like his brother. I know he doesn't like me to say that, but he's a terrific defensive player. He plays with energy and bounce. D.C. Arendas is another polished defender and was near of the top of our team in hitting this fall.

"Jordan Gore has been a pleasant surprise. He is farther advanced defensively than I thought he would be at this time. He played much better than I anticipated in the fall. He has a great leadoff approach, especially from the left side. He is going to get his fair share of at-bats. I like the way he plays. Right now, I feel comfortable with all three of those guys. They'll be battling it out."

Holbrook vowed he won't make a final decision on who the starter will be until the week of the season opener on Feb. 14 against Bucknell at Carolina Stadium.

LEFT FIELD: Although unfamiliar to most Gamecock fans, 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott Caldwell was rated one of the top JUCO prospects in the nation last season at Spartanburg Methodist College when he batted .371 (76-for-205) with three homers, 44 RBI and 63 runs scored. Caldwell, a native of Easley and a graduate of Wren High School, helped lead SMC to the JUCO World Series.

At the moment, Caldwell is penciled into the starting lineup by Holbrook, but Gore has worked there because his bat is so lively along with Pankake. Additionally, USC has four true freshmen outfielders plying their trade that could be future factors - Zack Madden (Charleston), Gene Cone (Columbia), Brock Maxwell (Suwanee, Ga.) and Jae Roberts (Columbia).

"I feel good about our outfield," Holbrook said. "Obviously, Tanner will man center field and we think he is as good as there is out there defensively."

THIRD WEEKEND STARTER: Behind junior lefthander Jordan Montgomery (6-1, 1.48 ERA in 79.0 IP, 64 hits, 19 runs, 60 strikeouts, 18 walks) and sophomore southpaw Jack Wynkoop (7-3, 3.09 ERA in 64.0 IP), who will be step up and earn the role of Sunday starter? Good question.

We know it won't be freshman Canaan Cropper (Salisbury, Md.), who underwent Tommy John surgery about a week ago and will redshirt in 2014. He is expected to be 100 percent healthy by the start of the 2015 season

Don't be surprised if the answer turns out to be freshman righthander Will Crowe, the 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Tennessee and a Louisville Slugger High School All-American after going 15-1 with a 0.46 ERA in 91 innings with 172 strikeouts for Pigeon Forge High School in Sevierville, Tenn.

"There are a number of guys we're considering in that's pot, but there is some competition going on there," Holbrook said. "We don't know how we're going to use Will Crowe yet. He could be our closer or a weekend starter. Will is very talented. He has starter stuff with a closer mentality. He's a horse. He can shoulder a lot of innings. He wants to throw and get us into the seventh inning. But we still have to decide what's best for our team. Right now, I feel good about Friday and Saturday and don't know about Sunday."

SETUP/CLOSER: If pitching coach Jerry Meyers elects not to utilize Crowe as the Sunday starter, he could easily end up serving as either the setup man or the closer out of the bullpen. Junior RHP Evan Beal is an intriguing possibility, but he is currently nursing a sore back and won't throw this weekend in the two scrimmages scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

Last year, USC rode the late inning combination of Adam Westmoreland (7-4, 2.32 ERA in 66.0 IP) and Tyler Webb (3-3, 1.47 ERA, 17 saves) to a number of victories, so the Gamecocks have a large void to fill in protecting late-inning leads this season.

"We have to find out who is going to get our last six outs of the game," Holbrook said. "We're looking at replacing some of those innings with freshmen. That's concerning as a coach. But those freshmen are talented kids. We have a couple of older guys too. I don't know who our closer is going to be."

Among the closer candidates are Crowe, junior RHP Cody Mincey (Spartanburg Methodist) and Matthew Vogel (Medford, NY).

"Cody Mincey and Matthew Vogel have showed great promise," Holbrook said. "Will Crowe has an exceptional arm. We have capable people back there. But they're unproven and some haven't done it at this level. So, we going to have to figure that out on the fly a little bit. We discovered Matt Price about halfway through the season, so we're not going to be in a hurry to find out who the closer is going to be. It will work itself out."

2014 PROJECTED OPENING DAY LINEUP:
C - Grayson Greiner
1B - Kyle Martin
2B - Max Schrock
3B - Joey Pankake
SS - Marcus Mooney OR D.C. Arendas
LF - Elliott Caldwell
CF - Tanner English
RF - Connor Bright
DH - Brison Celek
SP - Jordan Montgomery

FIRST 10 GAMES:
Feb. 14 vs. Bucknell, 3 p.m.
Feb. 15 vs. Bucknell, 1:30 p.m.
Feb. 16 vs. Bucknell, 12:30 p.m.
Feb. 18 vs. Presbyterian, 4 p.m.
Feb. 21 vs. Eastern Kentucky, 3 p.m.
Feb. 22 vs. Eastern Kentucky, 4 p.m.
Feb. 23 vs. Eastern Kentucky, 1:30 p.m.
Feb. 28 vs. Clemson, 7 p.m.
March 1 vs. Clemson, 2 p.m. (at Greenville)
March 2 at Clemson, 4 p.m.

DM


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