A YEAR AGO at this time, the mantra coming out of South Carolina baseball circles was Ray Tanner’s team was one without a star. Talented center fielder Jackie Bradley was sidelined with an injury and USC was without a bona fide All-American either in the lineup or on the pitcher’s mound.
Now, with a second consecutive national championship trophy on display outside Carolina Stadium, that perspective midway through last season seems distorted. Then you remember that left-hander Michael Roth was establishing himself as a front-line starter. Outfielder Evan Marzilli was solid, but not thought to be in the Bradley stratosphere either as a hitter or outfielder. First baseman Christian Walker and closer Matt Price were working toward star status.
The assessment of this USC baseball team is far different at the same stage of the season. Tanner has four college baseball superstars. Roth might be the best Friday night starter in the country. Few would argue that Price is the nation’s top closer. Walker is among the most feared hitters in the college ranks, and Marzilli’s all-around game might have surpassed Bradley’s.
Add in a pitching staff that is so deep any of seven arms would be front-line throwers for most teams in the country. Then mix in a freshman class stocked with soon-to-be standouts and you have the most-talented team of Tanner’s past three, and perhaps of his 16 at USC.
“I wouldn’t argue that point if you went by Combine skills: ability to run, throw, hit and catch,” Tanner said. “We do have some guys with skills. But the experience is not nearly what it was the last two years.”
The 2010 team was a work in progress, from trying to figure out the third weekend starter behind Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson to seeing if Scott Wingo could settle in at second base. The 2011 squad was established from the outset, aside from having to find a new weekend rotation.
The current squad fielded a fresh cast of characters at catcher, second base, shortstop and third base, and it took time for Tanner to settle the lineup. That adjustment period helps explain USC’s 2-6 start in the SEC. But the talent he brought in to fill the gaps in the lineup also helps explain the team’s 11-game conference winning streak heading into this weekend.
When a program wins back-to-back national titles, it reaches a level at which it usually can sustain success through solid recruiting. Players such as Walker, from Limerick, Pa., saw USC on television and decided he wanted to play college ball in Columbia.
It is similar to what Duke and North Carolina do in basketball, and what Alabama and Texas do in football. Those programs have ascended to a point at which they begin to select, instead of recruit, players.
USC is to that point in baseball, and its recruiting classes annually rank among the best in the country. It is why there is not a significant leap for players such as shortstop Joey Pankake, catcher Grayson Greiner, outfielder Tanner English and left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery to step in and make significant contributions as freshmen.
It also is why other talented freshmen such as right-handed pitchers Evan Beal and Joel Seddon, as well as infielders Kyle Martin, Connor Bright and T.J. Costen must wait their turns to play at USC. Every one of them would be starters at other programs.
By establishing a high level of talent that stretches to the bottom of its roster, USC no longer faces the prospect of rebuilding from one season to the next.
“I don’t like that word — ‘build’ or ‘rebuild.’ ” Tanner said. “I like ‘develop’ or ‘mold.’ Above all else, you want to have a great team. When you have a great team with great talent, then you’ve got something really special.”
Tanner has had something really special numerous times over the years, beginning with the 2000 club that went 56-10 and fell one game short of the College World Series. Each of his five College World Series teams also earned that “special” tag by combing talent with chemistry.
Those teams included the likes of Kip Bouknight, Drew Meyer, Yaron Peters, Brian Buscher, David Marchbanks, Landon Powell and Steve Pearce. They included future major-leaguers and others who simply were outstanding college players.
“They’ve always seemed to be the kings of the good college player,” said John Manuel, editor-in-chief of Baseball America. “They do still have those. But, in terms of just physical talent and ability, (this year’s team) probably is the most talented team they’ve had.”
Of course, like in all sports, talent alone does not win championships. That is where Tanner comes in, and we are watching him once again mesh the gears of a machine that has championship potential.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)