Morales gives Wingo - and team - a lift

04/30/2010 12:00 AM

04/29/2010 11:32 PM

Adrian Morales was expected to challenge starting second baseman Scott Wingo when he joined the South Carolina baseball team.

After Wingo struggled at the plate for the better part of two seasons, USC coach Ray Tanner was hoping Morales, a junior-college transfer from Miami Dade, would provide a push for Wingo.

The move has worked twice as well as expected.

Not only is Wingo, a standout defensive player, having his best season at the plate, but Morales has played well enough to earn a spot in the lineup at third base.

Morales, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior, has helped solidify the infield while collecting one key hit after another for the seventh-ranked Gamecocks (32-8), who lead the SEC with a 14-4 mark as they welcome Alabama for a three-game series at Carolina Stadium starting tonight.

"Scott had a great fall. I didn't see him before I got here, but to me he looked like a great hitter," Morales said. "Right now he's hitting great. I'm glad I could come in and play third and help the team win."

In last weekend's sweep of Georgia, Morales went 6 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs to boost his season totals to .288 with four home runs, eight doubles and a team-high 35 RBIs.

USC coach Ray Tanner marvels at Morales' ability to swing the bat in pressure situations.

"He brings a great awareness, especially with runners in scoring position," Tanner said. "He's like, 'I've got to have a good approach here. I've got to get a good barrel on this ball and help get the run home.' I like that."

Morales insists he has no magic formula for producing in such situations. His goal is simply to be consistent.

"Having experience and success in clutch situations has made me more confident at the plate," he said. "But I try to do the same thing every at-bat. I don't try to make any at-bat bigger than the next at-bat, and take the same approach."

Morales has handled the shift to third base with the same steady attitude. He played second, third and shortstop in high school and junior college, so shifting from the right side of the infield to the left presented no problem. Tanner, who likes to bring in junior-college players because of their experience, believes Morales' savvy makes him a good fit to handle whatever is thrown his way.

"He brings confidence, he brings maturity, he brings a winning attitude to the field," Tanner said. "He's not a great practice player, but he likes to win, and he likes to be a guy who's in the middle of the action. We as a staff recognized early on that we may have to keep him on the field as much as we can, regardless of where he plays."

A 45th-round selection of the Houston Astros in last June's draft, Morales didn't sign for what likely would have been a small bonus, opting instead to play for a traditional power in one of college baseball's top conferences while facing some of the best pitching in the nation.

A lifelong resident of South Florida along with three brothers - his parents are of Cuban ancestry; his mother came to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boat lift - he liked the idea of coming to South Carolina for a new experience. He doesn't regret his decision.

"The players welcomed me with open arms, and the coaching staff has been so helpful," he said. "The competition and the fans are great."

Morales' arrival has turned out well for Wingo, who is hitting .294 with eight homers and 24 RBIs, as well.

"He's a good player. He's fun to play with," Wingo said. "He's one of the most versatile players I've played with. What I like about him is that he comes out here and plays hard every day. He's a good teammate."

Morales says the same of the rest of the Gamecocks, who have won 26 of their past 30 games.

"This has been one of the best teams I've played on. Everybody battles every at-bat. There are no egos. There's none of that," Morales said. "Guys who could be starting anywhere else, whatever lineup coach Tanner puts up there, everybody cheers everybody on. It's not player-first, it's team-first. That's why we've been so successful."

And it all started with a little push.

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