COLUMBIA — In the days before his first season as South Carolina’s baseball coach, Chad Holbrook made few definitive declarations.
Coming off three consecutive trips to the College World Series final, of course Holbrook could not say if the Gamecocks would return there. Nothing really seemed certain for a team that lost its best pitchers, Michael Roth and Matt Price, and hitter, Christian Walker.
Holbrook made an exception for sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake. If the Gamecocks wanted to have a strong season, Holbrook said, Pankake would absolutely need to produce.
There will be more important games for USC this season than Tuesday night’s 6-5 victory over The Citadel. But perhaps none will better underscore the singular importance of Pankake.
He crushed the second pitch of the ninth inning into The Citadel’s bullpen and punctuated the walk-off solo home run by tossing his helmet skyward as he leaped into a mob of teammates who awaited him at home plate. These are the kind of moments USC so desperately needs from Pankake this season — not necessarily theatrical homers, but timely power hitting. This is a change from last season, when he functioned as a table setter for Walker and hit .264, including .103 (3 for 29) in the College World Series. Now he is the No. 3 hitter, with a .295 average and 25 runs batted-in — two fewer than he had all of last season.
“He wanted to come to South Carolina because he wanted expectations,” Holbrook said. “He had a decent year for us last year as a freshman. He smelled the popcorn in Omaha, so he knows what big-time baseball is all about. He’s only scratching the surface of how good he can be.”
USC (27-7) began Tuesday’s ninth inning with a 5-2 lead on The Citadel (17-17), which the Gamecocks defeated in Charleston last month. The Citadel scored three runs in the ninth, all with two outs, as eight Bulldogs batted and three different USC pitchers threw.
The Gamecocks were already concerned after losing second baseman Max Schrock, who suffered neck whiplash during a collision with a runner at first base earlier in the game. X-rays showed no bone damage, but Schrock’s status for this weekend’s series at Florida remains unclear. The Citadel’s ninth inning only added to USC’s hand-wringing.
Then Pankake lead off the bottom of the ninth, looked at one pitch, swung at the next and the game was over. David Rivera’s first pitch to Pankake was a slider, so Pankake sat on a fastball for the second. He got what he looked for — and delivered what his teammates have come to expect from him. Designated hitter Brison Celek said that in the dugout before Pankake’s at-bat, reliever Adam Westmoreland made a prediction: “Hey, right here, Joey is going to hit one out.”
Such is the optimistic state of USC’s hitters these days. The Gamecocks have swept their past two Southeastern Conference series, after being swept at home by Arkansas. They entered last weekend’s trip to Tennessee hitting .196 in SEC play, and promptly batted .375 against the Volunteers, while scoring 36 runs in three games. In its past five SEC games, USC has 48 runs, compared to just 17 in its first seven league games.
The Gamecocks cannot maintain such a tear while relying only on first baseman LB Dantzler, who leads them with a .331 batting average. They need Pankake, too. He is unquestionably their most complete player. He can throw 95 mph off the mound and could play any position on the field, Holbrook said. His speed makes him a base-stealing threat.
Pankake is quick to admit that his most glaring weakness right now is defense. He has 13 errors this season and 30 for his career. Still, swings like Tuesday’s — and his overall uptick in offensive contributions — make it easy to overlook booted ground balls.
Thursday night at Florida, Pankake will play his 100th game in a USC uniform. Much work remains if he is to be remembered alongside players like Roth and Walker. But Pankake will not shy from expectations — Holbrook’s or his own.
“I put a little more pressure on myself this year to have a better year,” Pankake said. “I think I’m a better player than what I showed last year.”