South Carolina has had such trouble hitting the ball this season that Ray Tanner has had to shuffle the lineup any way he can to keep hitters in there, even if it means playing somebody out of position just for his bat.
That's why it's likely that sophomore Erik Payne will continue to play second base when Mississippi State and USC begin a three-game series tonight, despite hardly playing the position through his high-school career, and never during his freshman year in college.
"I'm probably going to hang with him to an extent," Tanner said on Thursday. "I got to give Chase Vergason some opportunities as well."
Payne only played in nine games last year, expected since he was a natural third baseman and was playing behind Adrian Morales. He has tremendously improved from what he was when he first enrolled, but coming into the fall, Payne was still behind someone at third - junior-college transfer LB Dantzler, who had shown a slick glove since the first day of practice.
Payne was considered enough of a threat on offense that the coaches asked him to take some reps at catcher, despite the Gamecocks already holding a platoon of Grayson Greiner and Dante Rosenberg. Then as the season began to get underway and it was apparent that second basemen Vergason or Connor Bright couldn't hit especially well (and thought-to-be second baseman TJ Costen was better suited for the outfield), Tanner made the switch.
Payne has been improving at second, but still has what can be considered freshman moments, since he's a freshman at the position. In a 5-4 loss at Francis Marion on Wednesday, Payne had two natural double-play balls rolled to him - and bobbled each.
He recovered to get one out in each case, and the first didn't hurt USC. The second, had it been recorded, would have wiped out a two-out, two-run Patriots rally in the seventh inning - and the Gamecocks lost by one run.
Anybody who took over at second was going to be playing under a shadow - Scott Wingo's name and reputation still loom, as heavy as a lead blanket. USC's players and fans are fully realizing just how spoiled they were watching the kid from Mauldin do what he did best for four years.
Understandable, but still frustrating. And with the Gamecocks hitting like they currently are, it seems the best option is to keep playing Payne at second, with Vergason a late-inning defensive replacement.
"Chase's numbers, if you look at the batting averages, aren't all that impressive, but his on-base percentage is impressive," Tanner said. "He does a little better job of anchoring the defense, as far as being the captain out there. That's a benefit to us as well."
Payne is hitting .290. Vergason is at .194, but has done significantly better at getting on base over the last few games. Tanner had to sacrifice offense for defense for three years with Wingo, because there were other hitters stacked up and down the lineup (Wingo came into his own as a hitter in 2011, his senior year).
Now, with a team batting average of .274, he's doing the opposite.
"We're scuffling a little bit on offense," Tanner said. "Got some guys that are doing OK, some other guys that have cooled. Got to figure out a way to get more than four runs."
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