USC looks ahead to next year

South Carolina shortstop Joey Pankake, the team’s second-leading hitter this year with a .311 average, 11 homers and 42 RBI, could be moved to first base next season. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)

Gerry Melendez

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Eight months stand between today and South Carolina’s 2014 baseball opener.

But the team that walked out of Boshamer Stadium on Tuesday, ending its season with a 5-4 loss at North Carolina in an NCAA tournament super regional Game 3, will significantly resemble the one that takes the field in February at Carolina Stadium.

After last season, the Gamecocks lost core players from their back-to-back national championship runs and runner-up finish in 2012. First baseman and leading hitter Christian Walker, right fielder Adam Matthews, center fielder Evan Marzilli, ace starting pitcher Michael Roth and closer Matt Price all departed.

USC faced major questions entering this season about how it would replace that group. The Gamecocks did so capably, for the most part. They went 43-20 and 17-12 in the Southeastern Conference in coach Chad Holbrook’s first season, compared to 49-20 and 18-11 in Ray Tanner’s last.

But in the end, this team couldn’t pull out close wins like its predecessors. USC went 8-10 in one-run games, dropping a pair in the super regional at North Carolina. From 2010-12, USC went 9-7, 13-3 and 15-13 in one-run games.

Moreover, these Gamecocks stubbed their toe with the season on the line. They entered the super regional committing one error per game on average. They made three in each of the three super regional games, though North Carolina applied pressure by putting the ball in play. The Tar Heels struck out six total times in the super regional, and not at all Tuesday. Since at least the start of the 2003 season, USC’s pitchers had never failed to strike out a batter.

Though USC fell a game short of reaching its fourth straight College World Series, something it had never achieved, another goal remains for next season — five straight super regional trips, which it accomplished from 2000-04, with three Omaha, Neb., appearances in that run.

And unlike after the 2012 season, USC will not lose much from this year’s team. The two biggest departures are first baseman LB Dantzler and closer Tyler Webb, both seniors.

Dantzler, who was drafted in the 14th round by the Toronto Blue Jays, led USC this season with 15 home runs, 53 runs batted in and a .322 batting average, though he became the designated hitter in the NCAA tournament with sophomore Kyle Martin, a superior defender, taking over first base.

Webb ended his only season as the closer with a 1.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 14 walks in 43 innings. He was drafted in the 10th round by the New York Yankees.

USC also loses setup reliever Adam Westmoreland (2.32 ERA) and starter Nolan Belcher (2.38). Westmoreland was picked in the 26th round by the Miami Marlins. Belcher went undrafted.

Replacing those arms will be USC’s biggest issue entering next season. Besides Dantzler, the only starter who departs is third baseman Chase Vergason, whose .262 batting average ranked last among USC’s regulars.

There was an outside chance that junior left fielder Graham Saiko (.263 average) might be drafted, but he wasn’t. The only USC junior who got picked was backup designated hitter Brison Celek, a 31st-round choice by Toronto who played in just 30 games this season, with 24 starts, and hit .307. Celek, a fourth-year junior, has the option of turning pro.

Next year could bring significant departures, as four current sophomores have a chance to be drafted highly enough to leave school: shortstop Joey Pankake, center fielder Tanner English, catcher Grayson Greiner and pitcher Jordan Montgomery.

With third base open in 2014, moving Pankake there seems to be an option. He is a dangerous hitter and ranked second on USC this year with a .311 average, 11 homers and 42 RBIs. But defense is not his strong suit. He committed 17 errors in each of his first two seasons.

Webb leaving means the final pieces of USC’s title teams are moving on. The only players eligible to return next season who have a championship ring are Celek and relief pitcher Forrest Koumas, who threw just 181/3 innings this year.

“It’s been a great four years here,” Webb said. “To this point, it’s definitely the highlight of my life, and I’ll cherish the memories for a long time.”

Few people in college baseball enjoyed more College World Series highlights in recent years than Holbrook. He went to Omaha as a North Carolina assistant from 2006-08, with runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2007 and a semifinal appearance in 2008. He won the 2010 and 2011 titles as a USC assistant and reached the finals last year.

While he said Tuesday’s loss at North Carolina “stinks,” he added, “But I’m a big boy, and I’ve got two national championship rings. I’m OK. But I hate it for those kids that don’t have one. That’s the part that hurts right now. This is going to sound kind of arrogant, but it’s just the truth: The expectation when you coach at South Carolina and you play at South Carolina is to finish the year in Omaha. As long as I’m coaching, that’s going to be the expectation. And while in 63 games we did a lot of good, we fell short of our main goal. That’s going to burn me for a while.”