Greiner a more complete player behind the plate

When South Carolina’s players jogged off the field last season, freshman Grayson Greiner usually just removed his catching gear and pondered his upcoming at-bat. Rarely did he offer pitching coach Jerry Meyers the unsolicited comments that often help formulate a strategy to limit opposing hitters.

This season, Greiner returns to the dugout and regularly talks to Meyers about whether hitters are crowding the plate or not, and what pitches they seem to be anticipating. If Meyers can’t judge his own pitcher’s ball movement from the dugout, Greiner will fill him in and sometimes offer a suggestion for how to attack batters.

“I’m considerably more assertive,” Greiner said.

Greiner has been South Carolina’s starting catcher since the beginning of last season, but he is now a vastly more complete and valuable player — and not just because of what he says to Meyers. As the Gamecocks prepare to play their Southeastern Conference tournament opener tonight in Hoover, Ala., Greiner is their leading hitter against league competition. His .310 batting average is 35 points better than the next-closest Gamecock, LB Dantzler.

Last season, Greiner hit .258 against the league and .222 overall — worst among USC’s regulars. His current overall batting average, .297, is third on the team. After hitting .231 in the first half of this season, Greiner surged in the second half and hit .351 — partly because he successfully implemented the swing adjustments he made during the offseason, and partly because he forgot his failures quicker than he did as a quiet, anxious freshman.

“Last year, I got really pull-happy, especially toward the end there, trying to do too much with the bat, especially with men on base,” he said. “I just tried to work (in the offseason) on keeping my front side in and using the whole field and just taking what the pitcher gives me instead of trying to make something happen myself.

“Last year, I had some growing up to do, as far as being able to handle adversity. I would go in a slump for a couple days and I wouldn’t be able to handle it well. As a freshman, I think I put a little bit more pressure on myself than I needed to, and the results showed it.”

Late in 2012, Greiner was a mess at the plate. In his final 10 games against SEC teams, plus seven in the College World Series (because a knee injury sidelined him for NCAA tournament action before that), Greiner had miserable offensive statistics: 6 for 61, four walks and 17 strikeouts. All told, he struck out 48 times last year. He has 24 this year.

As a defender, Greiner has rarely faltered. Last season, he made just two errors and threw out 25 of the 43 opponents who tried to steal against him. This season, he has three errors and has thrown out 20 of 28 runners.

Greiner always had a strong arm. He played shortstop until seventh grade, when he grew too big for the position and moved behind the plate. He pitched well enough in high school that Meyers said he could do it in college if he tried. USC assistant Sammy Esposito helped Greiner harness his arm’s power, telling him he didn’t need to rush throws to second base. Esposito showed him a more patient throw would be just as effective, and more accurate.

Because Greiner is 6-5 and 220 pounds, some major league scouts didn’t project him as a catcher. Most professional catchers are shorter and stockier than Greiner. When Greiner worked out for major league teams as a high school player, some put him at left or right field. Greiner, who was not drafted out of high school, was intent on becoming a legitimate catcher.

“I tried to set out to prove those people wrong,” he said.

So far, he has. USC coach Chad Holbrook called him “the best defensive catcher in the country.” For the second straight year, Greiner was named to Team USA’s collegiate national team. (He couldn’t participate last year while recovering from the knee injury.)

This year, he added offensive power. His 34 RBIs are two more than he had all of last year. His slugging percentage jumped from .392 to .446. Last weekend, he had one of the season’s biggest hits — a two-out, two-run home run in the 10th inning at Mississippi State. The deep shot broke a 3-3 tie and boosted the Gamecocks to a 5-3 win that likely locked up NCAA tournament Regional hosting rights.

Those swings are why Holbrook believed, even during Greiner’s recruitment, that he would be the Gamecocks’ starting catcher for his first three years, and then turn pro. Greiner now hopes Holbrook’s next bold prediction for his future proves just as accurate.

“Honestly, I think Grayson Greiner will catch in the big leagues for a long time,” Holbrook said.