Schrock's toughness helps inspire, propel Gamecocks

South Carolina's Max Schrock has battled through a season of injuries. (Douglas Rogers/Special to The Post and Courier/File)

More than two months have passed, but Max Schrock still dreams about the defining moment of his baseball career.

There he is limping around the bases at Carolina Stadium, more hobble than jog, a painful trot on a bum ankle. In South Carolina's first SEC series this season against Ole Miss, Schrock channeled Kirk Gibson. The sophomore second baseman had no business standing in the batter's box on a sprained left ankle.

But Schrock could swing a bat.

His two-out, two-run homer tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, preventing South Carolina from losing its conference opener at home. His slow trudge to home plate was one of the more iconic moments in the brief, five-year history of Carolina Stadium.

"That walk-off home run is still kind of like a dream to me," Schrock said Wednesday. "There's been some times where I've been running around the bases and been like, 'Wow, that's something else.' But I try to just stay in the moment, stay grounded, and I think that helps me out a lot."

Look past the raw stats, and Schrock has put together one of the more remarkable seasons in recent Gamecocks history. Injuries have limited his production. His .270 batting average, 18 RBIs and 23 runs score lag behind the team leaders.

Yet, despite the second-degree sprain and a stress fracture in his back, Schrock has delivered almost every time South Carolina has needed him. From his game-tying home run against Ole Miss to his two-out, ninth-inning RBI single that tied South Carolina's critical series opener at Vanderbilt, the sophomore has compiled a career's worth of clutch moments this spring.

"He wakes up and has a hard time walking some mornings, and then he's out here getting big hits for us," junior third baseman Joey Pankake said. "He's a big part of our lineup. He's a tough kid. He's been through it all this year, and he's keeping his chin up."

Schrock doesn't struggle to identify the low point.

Entering an April 16 game at The Citadel, he was finally ready to move past his sprained ankle. Then the stress fracture flared up, forcing him from the game. Schrock has played sparingly since, and only as a designated hitter. South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook feared there was only a "50-50" chance he would play at all in the season's final month.

Extra rest has helped Shrock heal. He said Wednesday he feels better now than he has in almost two months. Schrock expects to play every game this weekend when South Carolina hosts the NCAA Columbia Regional, though he'll likely only be in the lineup as a DH. The second baseman said it's been three weeks since he fielded a ground ball.

Even if Schrock can only help his team at the plate, South Carolina would benefit. Holbrook said he was impressed with his sophomore's swings in batting practice this week.

"He looked like a big leaguer out there," Holbrook said.

Schrock went through a full batting practice Monday. The key for him was Tuesday morning. At times, his back felt good enough to play through one game. After he walked off the diamond, it would tighten again and force him to miss another week.

This week, that hasn't happened.

"I felt fine, and that was a good sign for me," Schrock said. "I woke up, and I was like, 'Man, it feels nice to get out of bed and not feel like I'm 90 years old.' That's a good sign, and hopefully it stays like that."

Even if it doesn't, there's a good chance Schrock will force his way onto the field. He's constantly pressed Holbrook for playing time, even when the coach preferred to rest him for the postseason. Schrock lost track of the hours spent in rehab long ago, joking he knows "every inch" of South Carolina's training room.

All the work was for this week and, if things go according to plan, the month of June. Despite the injuries, Schrock said he never even considered ending his season early.

"I really tried to stay optimistic," Schrock said. "There was never a point in time where I was like, 'I'm not going to play.' That's not the kind of kid I am. I'm going to go out there, and if coach asks me to play, I'm never going to say no. Even if I can barely get up there. If I think I can help out the team, I'm going to give it a shot.

"They say that there's not going to be any more structural damage, and I'm not going to hurt myself any worse. They told me I just have to play through some pain, and I can do that. I can go out there and, I may be hurting a little bit, but I'm going to give it my best effort however I can."