COLUMBIA — There’s a running joke that South Carolina assistant coach Sammy Esposito has with freshman shortstop Joey Pankake. That Pankake can laugh about it shows not only how comfortable he now is with high-level, high-pressure college baseball, but how much progress he has made as a defender.
“He says I have to drive in more than I let in,” Pankake said with a smile.
Pankake came to USC with a reputation as a shortstop who could hit much better than he fielded. That turned out to be true. He ranks fourth on the team with a .284 batting average and first with 12 doubles. He has driven in 18 runs. In the field, he has 16 errors in 42 games, 38 of which he started. But after making six errors in the first 10 games, he settled down a bit.
“He’s been somewhat inconsistent defensively, but he’s much better now than he was in the fall and the preseason,” said USC coach Ray Tanner.
The fifth-ranked Gamecocks (34-11, 14-7 Southeastern Conference) will need a composed Pankake in their final three SEC series, starting this weekend at No. 18 Arkansas (33-13, 11-0), which leads the SEC with a 2.61 ERA.
“I’ve failed more than I ever have,” Pankake said. “You’ve got to learn to live with your failures at this level. Initially, it was tough, but you have to accept it.”
Pankake was good enough at Easley High to get picked in the 42nd round of last year’s major league draft by the Texas Rangers, and good enough last fall to earn USC’s starting shortstop job before his 19th birthday.
But Tanner had no illusions of Pankake as an elite defensive shortstop, like Peter Mooney was last season. Mooney had 14 errors in 69 games — an unusually low number. Tanner said that between Mooney and second baseman Scott Wingo, USC’s middle infield was “probably as good as anybody in the country defensively, and (Pankake) knew that coming in.”
Tanner has encouraged Pankake to be more aggressive in charging ground balls, something Pankake said he never heard in high school. His biggest adjustment has been the general urgency with which he must play the position, because baserunners are much faster in college. He said his main issue defensively is throwing errors, though he certainly has a powerful enough arm to reach first base, as he has thrown around 90 mph as a pitcher.
“I’m just being a little hesitant,” he said. “I just need to let it go a little more.”
Said Tanner: “I think he scuffled in the very beginning because he was anxious. There was anxiety to go along with becoming a new player. You look over your shoulder across second base and you see those (back-to-back national championship) flags flying, and there’s some pressure that goes with that. Overall, I’m pleased with where he is.”
His teammates helped him keep his freshman mistakes in perspective. New third baseman LB Dantzler, who spent the past two seasons at a junior college, talked to Pankake about how he struggled defensively as a freshman on a much smaller stage.
“I tell people all the time (that) I couldn’t have handled it,” Dantzler said of Pankake’s immediate prominent role at USC. “I went and had probably the worst year, from a baseball standpoint, that I’ve ever had my freshman year. That’s in front of, what, 10 people at a game?
“So I’m struggling and I’m upset with myself, but I don’t have to hear about it from anybody but myself. Whereas Joey goes and makes an error or two, there’s 8,000 people yelling. That’s a lot harder. I know I wasn’t mature enough to do it, but he’s done a great job of staying focused.”
In Wednesday night’s home win over Davidson, Pankake conjured memories of Mooney as he tracked a fly ball into shallow left field. As Tanner watched, he didn’t think Pankake could get to it. But he made a sliding, over-the-shoulder catch that drew cheers from the crowd.
“I don’t think they were expecting me to make the plays that (Mooney) made,” Pankake said of his coaches. “But they just want me to maybe get to that level at some point.”
Tanner said starting pitcher Colby Holmes will miss his second straight start. An MRI revealed no major damage in Holmes’ sore shoulder, and Tanner said he plans to have Holmes begin throwing again in the middle of next week. Tanner will pick a starter after Saturday’s game. … Tanner expects USC’s best hitter, first baseman Christian Walker, to be ready for tonight’s game after missing the Davidson game because he tweaked his left hamstring Saturday.