Pankake ready for hot corner

A year ago, Joey Pankake hit .311 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI, good enough for second on the team in all three categories and good enough to be the returning leader in all three categories heading into 2014.
As the top returning hitter for for a projected national seed and Omaha favorite, why, then, is Pankake still regarded as the No. 40 college pitching prospect in the nation by Baseball America despite never having thrown a pitch in the college game?
"Some people see different things," Pankake said. "If it comes down to it, I'd pitch if I have to, but I want to hit as long as I can."
USC coach Chad Holbrook hopes "as long as I can" means mid to late June and ends in Omaha, Nebraska. Holbrook said the switch to third base - or possibly left field, depending - will allow him to focus his attention to the plate where he will be at the heart of the Gamecocks' order.
"He's a power hitter, big, strong, physical kid," Holbrook said. "Very very versatile, very athletic. We think Joey will have a great year over at third, but he's also versatile enough to play the outfield and work in the outfield from time to time.
"We'll always keep him sharp at both spots. It'll make our team more versatile if every now and again Joey can go into the outfield."
In the fall, Pankake was held from throwing to protect a strain in his right elbow just as the coaching staff was beginning to experiment with him on the mound. Unable to participate at full strength defensively until preseason practice, Pankake said the rest did his body good.
"I'm throwing across (the field) just like everybody else and am trying to get right back where I was," Pankake said. "I went through the rehab of my arm just like anybody would if they had surgery. I'm probably about 85, 90 percent right now so we're trying to keep it healthy. I'm still rehabbing and trying to take care of my body.
"I haven't had any problems, so I'm excited."
So is Holbrook.
"Joey has been throwing since we've come back from semester break full speed across the infield with no pain," Holbrook said. "We're going to continue to be extremely careful with Joey. We're going to keep getting him work right now. If we played today, he'd be our starting third baseman. He's gotten a lot better, a lot more comfortable over there.
A third-team preseason All-American for No. 7 South Carolina, Pankake has had no shortage of expert tutelage at his new position. Assistant coach Brian Buscher was played for a national title while at USC at third base in 2002, was an All-American at the position and played the hot corner in the Major Leagues with Minnesota from 2007 to 2009.
"Brian Buscher has done an incredible job with him, and he fits the mold of what an outstanding third baseman should be," Holbrook said.
Besides Buscher, joining the staff in the fall was former third baseman and two-time national champion Adrian Morales, an addition to the staff Pankake said who already is making a difference.
"Adrian helps out a lot over there at third," Pankake said. "He's constantly just hitting fungoes and getting me ground balls and teaching me little things at a time.
"He really loves the game. He'd get out there if he could. He's a natural leader; there's no other way to put it. He can help lead us and is a good model for us to follow."
Pankake said he's improved his defensive game a great deal since last year.
"Right now, I'm three times more comfortable than I was in the fall," Pankake said. "Just getting more reps over there is the big thing. I'm starting to settle in and feel real good there.
"I feel like my defense has really improved since the fall, too. It took some adjusting over there, just reacting and catching the ball is a lot different. I've gotten a lot better."
Along with junior catcher Grayson Greiner, Pankake said the two realize the burden of leadership now falls on their two shoulders this season as each is expected to be a high draft pick after the season is over.
"I think (Grayson and I) have done a real good job of (leading by example)," Pankake said. "We haven't had any problems; everybody we have is eager to get out there.
"They all work hard, they all love the game and I think we're going to have a really good season with this team.