COLUMBIA – There is no team in college baseball that South Carolina knows better than Florida, which the Gamecocks have played five times in each of the past two seasons. Yet as the teams renew their rivalry this weekend in Gainesville, beginning with tonight’s game on ESPNU, the Gators are struggling to find their own identity.
Gone from last season’s team are all nine of the players selected in Major League Baseball’s draft, including five players picked in the first three rounds and two first-round selections. Encountering Florida last year “was like playing a big league team,” said USC catcher Grayson Greiner. Like USC, Florida made the College World Series in each of the past three seasons.
Now, the Gators might not even make the NCAA tournament. The midpoint of the Southeastern Conference schedule arrives after this weekend’s games, and the Gators begin their series with 11th-ranked USC at 16-18, 5-7 in the SEC, though they won at No. 7 Florida State on Tuesday.
Few things have gone right for the Gators since they arrived in Omaha last year as the nation’s top-ranked team, hoping to build off 2011, when they lost to USC in the College World Series final, two games to none. Florida was 3-1 against the Gamecocks last season before opening the World Series against them. But after USC immediately sent Florida into the losers’ bracket in Omaha, the Gators dropped their next game to Kent State and were done.
It matters little this weekend that USC beat Florida 7-3 last year in Omaha, or that the Gamecocks are 6-4 against the Gators over the past two seasons. More pressing is the health of freshman second baseman Max Schrock, as the Gamecocks try to build on back-to-back sweeps of Texas A&M and Tennessee.
In Tuesday’s win over The Citadel, Schrock was plowed over by a runner while covering first base and sustained a mild concussion and neck whiplash. He traveled to Florida, but his playing status remains uncertain. Schrock, a prodigious hitter, batted .212 in the first half of the season, which concluded with the Texas A&M series. Then, at Tennessee, he was 7 for 12 with seven runs batted-in.
USC is starting to win with offense, an encouraging but not unexpected development for coach Chad Holbrook. In its past three games, it scored 12 and 19 runs, and beat The Citadel 6-5 on a walk-off solo home run by shortstop Joey Pankake. Players like Pankake and Greiner, who started as freshmen last year, have learned that college baseball requires an assertive mindset at the plate.
Pankake hit .264 last year and was 4 for 20 against Florida. He is now hitting .295 and has 25 RBI, two fewer than he had last year. Greiner hit .222 last year and was 1 for 13 against Florida. His average is now .289 and his 24 RBI are eight fewer than he had all of last season.
“I did the walk of shame a lot last year, a lot more than I wanted to, back to the dugout,” Greiner said. “That’s the worst feeling playing baseball, making that walk back there. I try (now) and get my hacks in early. In high school, you could just sit on off speed or fastball because when you’re some of the better players in high school, you don’t get much to hit. But at this level, you’ve got to really pay attention to scouting reports, watch what (the pitcher) does to other batters, what he does in between innings. If you get one pitch, you’ve got to hit it, because if you miss that one pitch, you’re probably not going to get another one after that.”
Last season, Florida’s weekend starters included a first-round pick, Brian Johnson, and a seventh-rounder, Hudson Randall. The third starter, Jonathon Crawford, is back this season, but he is 1-5 with a 4.37 earned-run average.
USC has starting rotation issues of its own. Nolan Belcher, strong all season, will start tonight. Jordan Montgomery, making his second start since missing four because of an elbow injury, goes Friday. He will not have a limited pitch count, like he did at Tennessee, where he threw 59.
The Saturday starter is unclear. USC began the season with Montgomery, Belcher and Colby Holmes as the starters. Montgomery’s injury and Holmes’ ineffectiveness bumped Evan Beal and Jack Wynkoop into starting roles. Montgomery’s return knocked Wynkoop out of the weekend rotation. Beal remained, but has struggled in each of his past three starts.
After Florida, USC faces No. 13 Kentucky, No. 3 LSU and No. 2 Vanderbilt in its next three series, which could define the Gamecocks’ regular season. So, like Florida, USC is hoping to find some answers this weekend as another homestretch push for Omaha begins.