USC newcomers step up to plate
COLUMBIA -- By the time South Carolina's baseball team held its first preseason practice Friday, the outfield scoreboard at Carolina Stadium had already been modified with a "2011" to trumpet the Gamecocks' back-to-back national championships.
They just scrimmaged Friday and won't begin the season until Feb. 17. But one of their newcomers, LB Dantzler, could barely contain his excitement earlier in the day about making his unofficial debut in the shadow of that scoreboard.
"I was sitting in class and was struggling to pay attention in marketing, just sitting there and thinking about it," Dantzler.
Before Dantzler can think about playing for pay, or even possibly helping USC win its third consecutive national title, he and the Gamecocks' two other new infielders must prove they can perform to the lofty standards set by their predecessors.
Dantzler, a junior who spent the past two seasons at junior college, is currently slotted to replace Adrian Morales at third base. Chase Vergason, another junior from a junior college, leads the competition to replace Scott Wingo at second base. Freshman Joey Pankake is the top candidate to take over for Peter Mooney at shortstop.
While replacing Wingo's offensive production will be important for USC, because he ranked second on the team last season with a .338 batting average, Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner noted that pitching and defense have "never been more paramount than now in college baseball," because the sport is using weaker bats that limit offensive power.
"We have to prove that we're good enough in the infield that we're not going to miss a beat," he said.
The newcomers are plenty talented. Baseball America ranked USC's recruiting class No. 6 nationally. Dantzler couldn't stop raving about Pankake's athletic ability.
"He does stuff in practice that is foreign to me, because I could never do anything like that," Dantzler said. "He'll just backhand a ball in the hole and throw it 95 (mph) across the infield and make diving plays up the middle. As a freshman, I couldn't hit balls even close to the catwalk, and he's putting them almost over the catwalk out in left field."
The three new infielders all played well in Friday's scrimmage, for what it's worth, as their team of starters beat the reserves, 9-2. Pankake and Dantzler both hit solo home runs. Dantzler also had a run-scoring single. Vergason smacked a double and scored a run. It was a positive step for Vergason, whom Tanner wants to see "swing the bat a little bit better," though Vergason impressed Tanner with his defense during fall practices.
Pankake said his own biggest adjustment in the field will be "charging the ball," because "you've got a lot better runners at this level than you do at the high school level."
Tanner likes that two of his new infielders are junior college transfers. He said Vergason and Dantzler "don't seem to have a lot of growing pains" that often limit freshmen. And while Tanner thought all three new infielders looked good during Thursday's individual workouts, he emphasized that none have experienced this level of college baseball.
"The lights weren't on (Thursday), and they're going to be coming on here in a few weeks," Tanner said. "We've got to wait and see. I think that's a big part of the battle, is how comfortable they can be. They're good players. They just haven't played."