When Chad Holbrook looks out on the diamond at Carolina Stadium on Friday afternoon against Liberty, he will feel a sense of comfort with the strength of his team up the middle.
Sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner, sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake, freshman second baseman Max Schrock and sophomore center fielder Tanner English not only form the nucleus of the defense, but they also will comprise the top half of the batting order.
“There’s an old adage in baseball that if you’re strong up the middle, you’re going to have a good team. That makes me feel good about our team this year,” Holbrook said.
Greiner, Pankake and English all started as freshmen last season, gaining experience for a team that finished 49-20 and reached the College World Series finals. Schrock is expected to play acrucial role this season.
“Tanner can go get them with anybody in the outfield, Joey is as talented of a shortstop as there is in our league, and maybe even the country, and Max is a terrifically talented freshman who can not only swing the bat but is very good defensively as well with great baseball instincts,” Holbrook said. “And I think our catching situation is an obvious strength defensively based on the way they’ve (Greiner and senior backup Dante Rosenberg) performed in the past.”
English, who batted .298 with 12 stolen bases as a left-fielder last season, likes how they’ve meshed up the middle in scrimmages.
“Obviously, we’re comfortable where we are. We’ve got to take charge, and we’ve been doing it for a while,” English said. “Ever since we got on campus in the fall, we’ve all been working together. We haven’t stopped. There are always little bumps in the road, but we’ve got things worked out now.”
Pankake, who batted .264 with 27 RBIs last season, has begun to form a solid partnership with Schrock as the new double-play combo. Pankake, who cut down on his errors as last season progressed, believes they’re beginning to solidify as a unit.
“I’m getting comfortable with Max up the middle. We play really well together. We turned a few double plays in the fall and the spring (scrimmages),” Pankake said. “He seems comfortable with the expectations put on him. He’s a good player, and he knows that. He’s just going to have to settle in really fast and do his share.”
English has big shoes to fill in center, as he follows Evan Marzilli from last season and Jackie Bradley from 2010 and 2011. Both were superlative defenders. But English, who has a strong arm, is faster than either of them. Although he has yet to show that he can track balls as well, he has learned plenty watching both players.
“Last year playing with Evan, I learned a lot just watching him shag balls in BP (batting practice). That’s where we get a lot of work in,” he said. “It’s the same thing with Jackie, when he comes back in the offseason. He gets out there and we talk, just kind of bash ideas off each other. Those two are amazing players.”
The returnees have a chance to be standouts, too. In Baseball America’s SEC preview, Pankake and Greiner (six homers, 32 RBIs) were included in the league’s Top 10 for the 2014 MLB draft class. Greiner, who missed playing for Team USA last season because of injuries, was named the league’s catcher with the best arm, while English was named the league’s fastest runner. Schrock was named one of the conference’s Top 10 newcomers.
Holbrook holds high hopes for the three sophomores.
“They’re a year older, a year stronger, a year more mature, and they understand what’s in front of them with the rigors of our league and the rigors of our schedule,” Holbrook said. “They’re more prepared this year to carry a little bit more of the load offensively than they did last year. And they’re all pretty good baseball players who showed the ability to adjust.”