As the South Carolina baseball team finished up three weekends of intrasquad scrimmages Sunday, it can now look ahead to playing a team wearing a different-colored uniform.
That would be Liberty, which visits Carolina Stadium for the season-opening three-game series starting Friday. Chad Holbrook, who’s entering his first season as USC coach, likes the way his team has performed since practice started in late January.
“I’m very encouraged,” he said. “I think we’ve got a number of talented guys who deserve to play. The unfortunate part for is we’ve got probably more than nine. It’s not going to be an easy deal to make the starting lineup up, but that’s a good problem to have.”
The Gamecocks, who finished 49-20 and reached the College World Series finals last year in Ray Tanner’s final season, return five starters – senior captain LB Dantzler, who has moved from third base to first, sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner, sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake, sophomore outfielder Tanner English, and senior Chase Vergason, who has moved from second base to third.
They bring back two members of the weekend pitching rotation in senior right-hander Colby Holmes and sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery, and one of their top relievers in senior left-hander Tyler Webb.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is the way our pitchers have thrown the ball and the way we’ve played defense, especially in the infield and behind the plate,” Holbrook said. “If you pitch and play defense, you’ll stay in games.”
The rest of the starting lineup for Friday’s opener looks to be freshman second baseman Max Schrock, sophomore right fielder T.J. Costen, junior-college transfer Graham Saiko in left field, and junior Erik Payne at designated hitter.
Holbrook isn’t certain how the starting rotation will fill out until he discusses it with pitching coach Jerry Meyers.
“Colby and Jordan are going to throw on the weekend for sure. I don’t know the order yet,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to have some conversations with Coach (Meyers) about that Sunday spot. Obviously, (freshman left-hander Jack) Wyknoop is in the mix, (senior left-hander) Nolan Belcher is in the mix, and (senior right-hander) Patrick Sullivan, with the way he threw, is in the mix, too.”
Belcher and Sullivan are the team’s other captains.
Holbrook’s biggest task is whittling down his roster to 35 for Opening Day. He said that a number of players are vying for the final two spots. Football players Ahmad Christian and Shon Carson, both outfielders, have made the team. Christian has swung the bat well although he needs to make progress defensively, while Carson, who sometimes struggled to make contact at the plate, must also work on his defense.
Holbrook called Christian “probably one of our toughest outs. He’s going to get in there, and he’s going to play.” And he called Carson “an incredible talent. He’s going to get his opportunities, too. He can help you win a game.”
The roster status of freshman first baseman Ryan Ripken, the son of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr., is less certain.
“He hasn’t played as well as he would have liked up until this weekend,” Holbrook said. “He had some pressure on him. All eyes are on him because of his last name. It’s probably unfair for Ryan. He did have a good weekend this weekend, and that was good to see.”
Holbrook said the final cuts on the roster always are difficult.
“Someone’s going to be left out that deserves to be on it. It’s not any fun for us to make that call,” he said.