Panik Stepping Up For St. John's

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Playing baseball his whole life in New York, Joe Panik heard plenty about how good the baseball players were anywhere but in the North. He knew the reputation the Southeastern and Pacific-10 conferences had crafted as the best conferences in college baseball.

But in just three months last summer, Panik showed that he—the St. John's shortstop from Yonkers, N.Y., owner of a voice thick with an accent unmistakably from the Big Apple, not the South—belonged among the best college players in the country.

That was Panik going 1-for-3 with a walk and an RBI against Drew Pomeranz in the Charlottesville, Va., Regional last June. The Mississippi ace would become the No. 5 overall pick in the draft three days later.

That was Panik starting at shortstop for the Eastern Division in the prestigious Cape Cod League all-star game at Fenway Park last July.

That was Panik winning the league's sportsmanship award, as voted by the umpires last August. And that was Panik ranking as the loaded league's No. 24 prospect, ahead of Pac-10 home run champion Ricky Oropesa, among plenty of others.

St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer has come to expect his star shortstop will shine on the biggest stages.

"Joe's a quality guy, a quality kid from a good family," Blankmeyer said. "He's one of the best players that I've ever coached in my 30 years, as a player and as a person."

Blankmeyer's coaching career has included eight first-round draft picks, including future stars such as Craig Biggio, John Valentin and Mo Vaughn. If things continue to break right for Panik this spring, he could become the ninth name on that list, a testament to the hard work he put in this summer to improve his hitting and speed.

"I feel like both of those things combined have not only helped me put quality swings on the ball, but help me leg out infield hits and move around the bases a lot better," Panik said.

The adjustments Panik made in the offseason are beginning to show this year. Through 67 at-bats, he is hitting .418/.547/.537 and is 7-for-7 in stolen bases. Blankmeyer said Panik's improved foot speed is helping him in the field, where has only made one error in 17 games.

"He certainly has worked on his athleticism," Blankmeyer said. "Everyone wants great athletes playing baseball."

When Panik started the Cape League all-star game, his backup in that game was North Carolina's Levi Michael, another highly touted draft prospect. The two top college shortstops met again March 9 for a midweek game at North Carolina. Michael and the Tar Heels came away with an 8-1 victory and Panik was held hitless, but coaches who have watched both play think they are comparable.

"They're both dynamic players, they help the team go," Seton Hall coach Rob Sheppard said. "They're very good on both ends, both defensively and offensively. I think they're very similar type players."

Because Michael moved to shortstop from third base this year, Blankmeyer has only seen him play one game as a shortstop. But he sees similarities between Michael and his own star at the plate, calling both very good hitters.

After improving his hitting last summer, Panik's draft position will likely hinge on whether scouts believe he can remain a shortstop at the next level. One National League area scout said the greatest obstacle for Panik staying at short is his average throwing arm, which is shy of what most teams are looking for at the position. Panik is aware of concerns about his ability to remain a shortstop, and it was one of the reasons he worked to improve his quickness.

"I think my glove was the best part of my game," Panik said. "But now I feel like to take my game to the next level (I need) to be able to hit better and especially run better to be able to stay at shortstop."

But that, like everything else related to the draft, is not on Panik's mind now. He said in the summer and fall he dealt with a lot of scouts, but is now focusing on helping St. John's get back on track.

The Red Storm was ranked No. 23 in the preseason but had an inconsistent start to the spring. St. John's 5-8 record start was disappointing for Panik (the Red Storm has since rebounded with four straight wins to climb above .500), but he knows the team is still capable of reaching the NCAA tournament again.

Last year, St. John's capped an improbable run through the Big East tournament by knocking out SEC-power Ole Miss, and it came within a victory of upsetting No. 5 Virginia to win the Charlottesville Regional.

"It was a great experience," Panik said. "Going into the Big East tournament we weren't going to get an at large bid. We took four straight games against some quality teams, Louisville and (Connecticut).

"(Regionals) was a great experience; we just came up a couple runs short. Our guys showed a lot of resiliency those two weekends."

Resiliency is part of what the Red Storm will need as it looks to get back on track this season. Both Panik and Blankmeyer cited consistency as the team's chief problem in the year's first 11 games.

And that makes Panik the best person to lead a Red Storm turnaround in the coming months. Because not only does Blankmeyer call Panik one of the most talented players he's coached, he's also one of the steadiest.

"Joe's consistent," Blankmeyer said. "He's a level-headed young man. He doesn't play too high or too low. He's mature beyond his age."