COLUMBIA — Joey Pankake’s cheeks were still rosy several minutes after he ducked into the warmth of South Carolina’s clubhouse. The Gamecocks had just buried Davidson on a chilly Wednesday night to improve to 15-2 heading into tonight’s Southeastern Conference baseball opener at Missouri.
“I did everything I could to stay warm in the dugout,” Pankake said. “I looked over at Sully (teammate Sean Sullivan), and I was like, ‘Man, you’ve had two pairs of gloves this whole time?’ ”
Astute cinema buffs will recognize that Pankake borrowed the line from the 1994 buddy comedy “Dumb and Dumber.” Pankake smiled as he channeled the words of Jeff Daniels’ mop-haired character, Harry Dunne, and left no doubt that these are loose and happy times for USC’s hitters.
Yes, concerns remain about starting pitching. Ace Jordan Montgomery will miss his second consecutive start tonight because of an elbow bone stress reaction. USC coach Chad Holbrook doesn’t expect him to start in either of the next two series, home against Arkansas and Texas A&M. Evan Beal, a prodigious right-hander with two career starts, gets the nod tonight.
Nolan Belcher hasn’t allowed a run in 18 straight innings,and he would ideally start tonight, Holbrook said. But Belcher threw 118 and 103 pitches the past two Sundays, so Holbrook couldn’t move him up two days. Belcher will throw Saturday this weekend. Sunday’s start goes to Colby Holmes, whose earned run average in his past two Saturday starts is 8.00.
There is no uncertainty right now about USC’s bats. The Gamecocks hit .210 on opening weekend against Liberty, when they went 2-1. Since, they are hitting .322. Their team average is now .305. Granted, it is early and USC has played just three games against major conference-level competition, the Clemson series. But the players who USC needs to hit are doing just that.
LB Dantzler, the senior first baseman, is hitting .429, with six home runs, 23 runs batted in and a 1.386 on-base plus slugging percentage. Pankake, the sophomore shortstop, is at .373, with four homers, 16 RBI and a 1.144 OPS. Last season entering SEC play, Dantzler was hitting .250 as a junior college transfer, Pankake .257.
Though Dantzler’s and Pankake’s numbers will probably dip in SEC play, they will almost certainly increase from last season. Dantzler finished with a .262 batting average, .772 OPS, 10 homers and 48 RBI. Pankake’s numbers: .264, .732, two homers, 27 RBI.
USC lost Christian Walker, its leading hitter the past two seasons. But while last year’s team relied on five newcomers, including three freshmen, this group starts two, including one freshman. Dantzler said the experience those five newcomers gained last year was valuable.
“I definitely think we’re better offensively (as a team than last year),” he said. “It’s tough coming in (from high school or junior college), not so much from a physical standpoint. You just have a lot more confidence and you know what to expect (after a year), and I think that’s the biggest thing, honestly. You face guys throwing 92, 95 in high school every once in a while.”
The SEC gauntlet will determine where the Gamecocks end up. They hit .265 as a team last year after entering league play at 15-1 and with a .280 batting average.
They need Pankake’s power more than they did last season, when he was a table-setting hitter and not nearly as strong as he is now. They need Dantzler to continue to stay back in his stance and hit the ball to all fields, rather than just pulling. After undergoing surgery to a wrist bone in the fall, Dantzler rebuilt his approach by swinging a wiffleball bat, then a fungo bat, then hitting off a tee with a regular bat. During rehab, he concentrated on hitting more balls up the middle.
“Even though he’s still a pull guy for the most part, you very rarely see him hooking balls foul all the time,” Holbrook said. “Last year, that was consistent. He couldn’t stay behind the ball. Now, he’s staying behind the ball a lot better and hitting the ball with some backspin, and the ball’s carrying out of the park for him.”