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April 25, 2010

USC pitchers have right stuff in '10

The numbers tell a story. First in the SEC in ERA. First in opponents' batting average. First in strikeouts. First in fewest hits allowed. Most importantly, first in the SEC East. USC coach Ray Tanner insists the man he brought in six seasons ago to direct the pitchers has always had his full confidence.

The numbers tell a story.

First in the SEC in ERA. First in opponents' batting average. First in strikeouts. First in fewest hits allowed. Most importantly, first in the SEC East.

Guiding the South Carolina pitching staff is the same guy whose pitchers compiled a 5.07 ERA a year ago, when a bullpen collapse in the NCAA regional final against East Carolina turned what looked like a sure victory into a hard-to-swallow defeat.

Mark Calvi refused to let that disappointment define him. He went to work and remade a staff that is now the envy of the SEC.

USC coach Ray Tanner insists the man he brought in six seasons ago to direct the pitchers has always had his full confidence.

"I know the last couple of years when our team ERA wasn't as good as we wanted it to be, he took a lot of criticism for that," Tanner said. "The truth of the matter is he's a great teacher, he has a great rapport with his pitchers, and he's always been prepared. I never have questioned his ability."

Calvi, a former catcher who played one season of professional baseball, is working the controls of a deep staff that ranks in the Top 10 nationally

He points to the variety of options on the staff as the primary reason for its success. Veterans Blake Cooper, Sam Dyson and Jay Brown have led the rotation, backed by a bullpen fronted by redshirt freshman Matt Price that has proven to be rock solid. Newcomers such as freshmen Ethan Carter, Tyler Webb and Colby Holmes as well as junior-college transfers Jose Mata and John Taylor have contributed.

With 14 different pitchers who have earned decisions, and a mix of right-handers and left-handers, Calvi has been able to get them to embrace their roles.

"These guys all pull for each other. They don't want someone to do bad so they can get in," he said. "A guy like Matt Price easily has Friday night stuff, but he wants Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson to win every game. He doesn't win someone to slip up so he can slide in and start. He wants to help the team. I haven't seen one selfish guy out there. Ultimately, it's about winning, and guys, if they do well enough, will get their turn."

Finding enough arms to get through the grind of a 56-game regular season, followed by postseason play, is not easy, especially in the hitter-friendly college game.

Calvi understands how unforgiving his job can be, especially at a program where expectations are always high. Even though the Gamecocks have reached the NCAA tournament in each of his seasons, some fans have dwelled on late-season struggles that helped keep USC from returning to the College World Series since 2004.

It didn't help that he followed Jerry Meyers, the pitching coach on teams that went to Omaha from 2002-04 before taking the head coaching job at Old Dominion. That has made Calvi a convenient target on Gamecock fan Web sites.

"You know that saying, 'Be careful what you wish for?' Here everything is magnified," said Calvi, who came to USC from Florida International. "People care. They notice. They pay attention. That's what I wanted. But when I got my feelings hurt a few times, it shocked me. I never had anyone take shots at me before."

But it has made him tougher. And he's able to separate what he considers legitimate criticism from the postings of anonymous message-board users.

"I understand I've been the lightning rod. I've been the person that they've pointed to when we lost a few games on the mound that have gotten away from us," he said. "I'd rather the blame be on me than the kids anyway. We have great fans and I won't let a couple of negative, misinformed people bring me down or affect what I do.

"So that has been good from a personal development standpoint. I've understood to let some things go and not let them bother me."

Tanner also does not put stock in the chatter since he sees how Calvi goes about his business.

"Coach Calvi has taken some hits when our ERA went up," Tanner said. "We laughed about it a little bit, but he took it personally. He was unhappy about it. It's probably not fair, but it comes with the territory."

Then he adds, with a big smile, "I kid him, 'As long as you're taking the shots, I'll keep you around.'"

Calvi said his job involves finding pitchers who have the ability to compete at the SEC level and enhancing their skills once they arrive on campus.

One pitcher who has steadily progressed under four seasons of Calvi's tutelage is Cooper, who has gone from a dependable starter to the Friday night ace. Calvi got Cooper to develop a changeup early in his career, and over this offseason got him to add a slider, which has proven to be very effective against the left-handed hitters who gave Cooper fits the previous three seasons.

Calvi also encouraged Cooper to get in better shape. Cooper lost 20 pounds thanks to a diligent workout regimen.

"Ever since I've been here, Coach Calvi has been a great coach to me," Cooper said. "He's always believed in me. He gave me the opportunity to pitch. He knows how to call pitches, and I attribute all my success to him."

Calvi also was instrumental in bringing in new arms like Jose Mata, the sidearming right-hander who has been a key part of the bullpen.

Mata had heard good things about Calvi from his junior college coach, and he liked the opportunity being offered. He has no regrets about his decision after working with Calvi over the fall and spring seasons.

"He really knows his stuff when it comes to attacking hitters and controlling a pitching staff. He's one of the best coaches I've ever had," Mata said.

Tanner puts a premium on hiring qualified assistants, especially when it comes to pitching. He wants Calvi to learn as much as he can about his pitchers and their personalities, and use that knowledge to formulate scouting reports and game plans. They meet before every game.

"I was given an opportunity to coach and be a part of the program without having a finger on me. I've tried to do that with all my assistants in the past," Tanner said "It's very difficult for a head coach to micro-manage. It's too much. From a pitching standpoint, I enjoy it a lot more that he's doing as much as he does. Very rarely do I go against his suggestions. I trust him as I always have."

Those game plans - and the pitchers' execution of them - have led to six shutouts and the kind of start that has many fans optimistic about a run in the postseason. Calvi tempers that optimism because there's a lot of baseball to be played.

But he feels good about where this team is, something he could also say about himself. The native of South Florida has found a comfort zone in the Columbia, where his wife teaches elementary school in Swansea and his daughter is a freshman at Dreher High.

"It's been a great move for us. My wife and daughter love it here," he said.

He shares the same feelings for his pitchers, with 31 of them going to the professional ranks. He appreciates what this group has accomplished so far because he knows what they have put into it.

"It's satisfying to see these guys do well and have success. That's the best part - to see guys who are proud because they see their hard work has paid off. And they take that into life when they leave here," he said.

Calvi has applied that lesson to his own job. Eleven months after the tough loss to ECU, his hard work is paying off.

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