The Daily Gamecock

Baseball resumes conference play Friday

USC, Tennessee tied atop SEC East with 3 others

Freshman starting pitcher Wil Crowe has built a team-leading 5-0 record in his first year with the South Carolina baseball team and, according to head coach Chad Holbrook, he’s well on his way to a spot on the Freshman All-America team.

And while Crowe hasn’t looked like he has needed any added motivation on the mound this season, this weekend’s home series against Tennessee carries more weight than any other in the young career of the Sevierville, Tenn. native.

“It feels good to play against them. I mean, I know a lot of guys on the team,” Crowe said. “They’re a good team. We’ve got to just make sure we do what we’re supposed to do.”

Crowe is a member of a South Carolina team that has proven to be one of the best in the nation so far this year. Through March 23, the Gamecocks rank fourth in the country in earned run average and third in strikeout-to-walk-ratio.

The freshman has done plenty to stand out in the stacked South Carolina rotation, and Holbrook said he’s been pleasantly surprised with Crowe’s production.

“Wil’s been very consistent for us since we came back to school in January,” Holbrook said. “His pitch ability has impressed me. He’s been able to change speeds a lot better than I would have hoped.”

Crowe is positioned to start in his usual spot in Sunday’s series finale, with junior Jordan Montgomery getting the ball Friday night and sophomore Jack Wynkoop starting Saturday’s contest.

With Crowe’s hometown team visiting, he’s absorbed plenty of headlines leading up to the weekend, but the offensive story to follow in Gamecock baseball has been junior Joey Pankake’s current hitting streak.

Pankake has hit safely in 12 consecutive games, but he used his best coach-speak to divert the attention away from his recent achievements.

“I try to get hits every game,” Pankake said. “So that’s not a big deal for me. If [the streak] comes to an end, it’s going to some time. So I’m not really thinking about it right now.”

The junior’s .325 batting average ranks fourth in a South Carolina order that features six players that boast an average of more than .300.

The Gamecocks’ opponent this weekend ranks 22nd in Baseball America’s national rankings and 21st in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. The Volunteers sit at 19-4 overall, with a 3-3 SEC mark identical to South Carolina’s.

Similar to the team the Gamecocks faced last weekend at Kentucky, Tennessee relies heavily on its offensive production.

The Volunteers have seven players on their roster hitting more than .300, with freshman Nick Senzel and his .352 average leading the charge.

While Holbrook acknowledged the threat that the Tennessee batting order brings to the table, he said his pitchers have given him no reason to worry, and it will be up to the offense to put enough runs on the board.

“Our backbone of our team is our pitching staff,” Holbrook said. “But I told our guys last night that we’re going to have to do our part, we’re going to have to score.”

The Volunteers have shown the ability to put up big numbers, at one point this year hanging 20 runs on Purdue.

A series win this weekend could prove as a crucial jumping off point for South Carolina’s SEC season but, inversely, a loss could drop the team below .500 in the conference.

Despite that daunting scenario, Holbrook said he is only worried about one game at a time.

“It’s (SEC) 30 games, and each one of them is important,” Holbrook said. “Yes it’s a series, but it’s three, one-game series in my book.”