The Gamecocks' infield may have lost a three-year starter in third baseman Joey Pankake, but the team hopes to replace his offensive production with a healthy Max Schrock.
Following a freshman year in which he started 61 of 63 games and earned second-team freshman All-America honors, Schrock was limited to just 35 games in 2014. He hit .299 with five home runs (tied for second on the team) and 20 RBIs in those games, but rarely played the field after ankle and back injuries popped up in early March.
After the season, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina native refrained from summer ball for the first time since his Little League days to rehab his nagging injuries. Schrock also dropped about 20 pounds to take some of the stress off of his body.
Head coach Chad Holbrook said Schrock looks much more agile as a result of the dieting and rehabilitation. He expects to see a full-strength Schrock from the season’s opening pitch.
“I think Max is one of the best players in the country,” Holbrook said. “He worked extremely hard in the offseason. Max has a chance to be a very special player, and we expect him to have a big year.”
With Schrock seemingly ready to man second base on a regular basis, Holbrook is left with a logjam up the middle between last year’s starting shortstop Marcus Mooney and sophomore Jordan Gore, who Holbrook said made great strides in the fall.
“They’ve both played great,” Holbrook said. “You have to beat out Marcus Mooney because he was our shortstop a year ago and he made some big plays. The rule around here is if you’re an everyday starter, somebody’s gotta beat you out.”
Mooney started 57 of 62 games last year and hit .274 predominantly out of the leadoff spot. Looking back, Holbrook said he wishes he batted Mooney lower in the lineup to take pressure off of him, which he thinks may have contributed to his team-high 11 errors.
Gore hit .226 in 33 games — 14 starts — last season, but showed some pop, hitting one of his two home runs in walk-off fashion against Tennessee.
Holbrook said that both players would start at shortstop in the early portion of the season, adding that Gore may see time in the outfield while Mooney is at shortstop.
A couple of familiar faces will man the corners, with junior D.C. Arendas at the hot corner and senior Kyle Martin at first. Martin started every game last year and led the team with a .336 average, to go along with five home runs and 38 RBIs. Holbrook said leadership won't be an issue with Martin in a leadership role.
Arendas, who predominantly played second last season, proved to be a reliable defender as well as a tough out at the plate after the injury to Schrock.
One newcomer that Holbrook said might make an immediate impact is freshman Madison Stokes. The 40th round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2014 has turned heads, churning out some of the most impressive offensive production in the spring scrimmages.
The biggest strength in this year’s infield appears to be its depth and flexibility. According to Mooney, every player can play multiple positions — he just wants the infield to do its part to help steer the team back to Omaha.
“You gotta have that confidence,” Mooney said. “You can’t go into the season feeling sorry for ourselves about last year. We just put it behind us, step forward and hopefully our talent can bring us to where we want to go.”