What: NCAA baseball super regionalWhere: Chapel Hill, N.C. Game 1: Friday, 1 p.m., ESPN2 Game 2: Saturday, noon, ESPN Game 3: Sunday, noon, ESPN* * — if necessary
COLUMBIA — Max Schrock’s home is a 10-minute drive from North Carolina’s Boshamer Stadium. He attended baseball camps there as a kid. When he was in high school, he played in showcase tournaments at the stadium.
Schrock grew up a Tar Heels fan, regularly went to their baseball games and still roots for their basketball team, an allegiance “that’s going to be hard to take away from me,” he said.
Yet he decided during his sophomore year of high school that he didn’t want to play for North Carolina’s powerhouse baseball team. Instead, he committed to another elite program — South Carolina.
“I think location did play a part in it,” he said. “I kind of wanted to get away a little bit. I came to a game here (at USC) and I loved it. So I decided this was the place for me.”
This weekend, in a best-of-three super regional that starts Friday, Schrock will return to Chapel Hill as the Gamecocks try to knock off the Tar Heels, the NCAA tournament’s top overall seed, and advance to their 12th College World Series.
Schrock, a second baseman, has experienced an uneven freshman season, but sparkled in the second half. He showed why North Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes described him before the season by saying, “He could hit since he came out of the womb, I think. His hand-eye coordination is really good.”
The Tar Heels had pedigree of their own to sell Schrock in recruiting. They have played in nine College World Series, including five since 2000. USC has six Omaha trips since 2000, with two national titles and two runner-up finishes.
USC coach Chad Holbrook realizes he is fortunate that the hometown pull wasn’t a factor for Schrock in his decision.
“We were the beneficiaries of that,” Holbrook said.
Holbrook so admires Schrock’s potential that he said before the season that Schrock could handle hitting third in the order, as Christian Walker did while batting .327 as a freshman in 2010, albeit with the old, more powerful bats. Schrock hit third for the season’s first game, then for the three games against Clemson from March 1-3. He hasn’t done it since.
Schrock sputtered through the season’s first half, hitting .212 (21 for 99) with 16 RBIs.
“He tried to put too much pressure on himself early in the year, and he was trying so dadgum hard to show everybody what he could do,” Holbrook said. “He was getting himself out quite a bit earlier in the year, swinging at pitches he normally doesn’t swing at. He’s since calmed down and relaxed and hasn’t tried to do too much.”
In the second half, Schrock hit .360 (36 of 100) with 21 RBIs. He found a home hitting fifth in the order. Before Schrock ever even played a college game, his USC teammates raved about his maturity, uncommonly high for a freshman. Holbrook saw Schrock’s usual steady demeanor emerge in the season’s second half.
“He knows how a baseball player is supposed to act,” Holbrook said. “He doesn’t get too up, doesn’t get too down. He’s got a gift in regard to that. That’s enabled him to deal with some of the struggles that he’s had this year. He’s learned a lot this year.”
Holbrook has high hopes for Schrock. He will be a cornerstone of a 2014 team that should return all of its position players except third baseman Chase Vergason and first baseman LB Dantzler, its leading hitter.
For now, Schrock needs to adjust again. Holbrook put him in the leadoff spot in all three regional games last weekend because both of USC’s opponents, Saint Louis and Liberty, started right-handed pitchers. Schrock, a lefty batter, is stronger against righty arms than Graham Saiko, a righty batter who led off 45 times this season.
Schrock led off just five times all year before doing it in the regional. He hit just 3 for 14 in the regional and was uncomfortable at times. Holbrook said he doesn’t want to hit Schrock leadoff, but acknowledged he might have to play the percentages this weekend. North Carolina’s Friday starter in the regional was righty Benton Moss. The Tar Heels’ other two starters are leftys.
Saiko said a big part of the leadoff hitter’s job is to take pitches, in order to read the pitcher and let other hitters know how he looks. This duty is yet another new challenge for Schrock.
“I tell myself I need to see a few more pitches when I’m in the leadoff spot,” he said. “It’s a little bit of an adjustment because I like hitting earlier in the count, but it’s an adjustment that I can work on and I don’t mind.”