When the South Carolina baseball team returned to the College World Series last season for the first time since 2004, it made the most of the trip to Omaha.
The Gamecocks overcame an opening-game loss and rode a dramatic six-game winning streak to claim the program’s first NCAA national championship. The post-season surge, with 11 wins in 12 games capped by a sweep of UCLA in the championship series, made the Gamecocks’ 26th trip to the NCAA tournament the best one of all.
Now USC coach Ray Tanner, who has guided the team to 11 consecutive postseason appearances, would love nothing more than to make his next visit as successful as the last one. But the Gamecocks, who return a core group of players from the title squad, must again have everything fall into place if they are going to get the opportunity to open Omaha’s new TD Ameritrade Park as they closed Rosenblatt Stadium.
Here’s a look at 10 things that need to happen for a trip back to the promised land.
DEVELOP A STARTING ROTATION
The Gamecocks lost 47 starts with the departures of Blake Cooper, Sam Dyson and Jay Brown. Cooper and Dyson alone accounted for 38 percent of USC’s total pitching innings a year ago. Finding a group of starters that can supply the same kind of quality innings, especially in the 10 three-game SEC series, will not be easy, but new pitching coach Jerry Meyers feels comfortable that left-handers Michael Roth, a CWS hero in two starts, Tyler Webb, Adam Westmoreland, Steven Neff and Bryan Harper and right-hander Colby Holmes can get the job done.
ADJUST TO THE NEW BATS
Fans can expect to see fewer home runs in Carolina Stadium because the new bat standards mandated by the NCAA means the bats will play closer to wood than aluminum. That will put more of an emphasis on elements like the hit-and-run, bunting, and stealing bases, but the Gamecocks showed last season they can play that game, too. With an experienced everyday lineup, they will put the ball in play, although the final scores in the wins many days may be 5-2 instead of 10-4.
STAY HEALTHY, ESPECIALLY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INFIELD
Every team must keep key players healthy – and the Gamecocks already have experienced one key injury with junior left-hander Nolan Belcher going down for the season – but it’s very important to keep shortstop Peter Mooney and second baseman Scott Wingo healthy because of the lack of depth and experience in the middle infield. Freshman Jake Watson is the only real backup, although third baseman Adrian Morales has the ability to move back to second base.
LOOK FOR THE BULLPEN TO DUPLICATE ITS SUCCESS
USC’s bullpen helped carry the team to the title, and the most important contributors return, starting with dominating right-handed closer Matt Price, who went 5-1 with 10 saves, a 2.26 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings. Fellow righties Jose Mata and John Taylor return in key setup roles, with UNC transfer Logan Munson moving in to take Roth’s old role as a situational lefty. The wild card is hard-throwing freshman right-hander Forrest Koumas, who could turn out to be an important part of the staff however he is used.
HOPE PETER MOONEY IS AS GOOD AS ADVERTISED
The junior-college transfer comes with great credentials – a two-time JC national defensive shortstop of the year and a solid contact bat that can make things happen at the top of the lineup. Mooney should not only more than adequately replace Bobby Haney’s glove, but he also is expected to swing the bat much better than his predecessor. He moves into the only open position in a veteran lineup and should fit right in.
LATCH ON TO JACKIE BRADLEY’S SOARING TRAJECTORY
One of the nation’s best players, the preseason All-American won the CWS Most Outstanding Player last season, when his star power ignited the team down the stretch. The junior center-fielder not only led the team in the Triple Crown categories (BA, HR, RBIs) but he also provided sparkling defense that has professional scouts looking at him a potential first-round pick. With another big season, he can leave the program as one of the greatest players in its history.
WIN ENOUGH SEC GAMES TO HOST A REGIONAL
The Gamecocks fell short of Florida in the SEC East last season, but their 21 wins in the nation’s top conference proved they could play with anybody and helped them land a spot as a regional host. They used that success and those home games as a springboard in the postseason. The two divisional series against Florida and Vanderbilt, both ranked in the Top 5 nationally in the preseason, should be significant indicators on just how good the Gamecocks can be.
PILE UP THE NON-CONFERENCE VICTORIES
With a 22-4 mark in the regular season a year ago in non-conference games, the Gamecocks took care of business against the teams that they were supposed to beat. Those four losses, two each against East Carolina and Clemson, came in the season’s first 10 games, which means they really played well as the season progressed. That kind of momentum also can put a nice shine on the overall record when the NCAA is looking at its postseason field.
MAINTAIN A LOOSE, CONFIDENT STYLE OF PLAY
Last season’s team never appeared to be affected by pressure. Leaders like Wingo and Morales took charge and didn’t allow errors or bad innings or falling behind in games to bother the team. Wingo’s vocal pregame huddle routine kept things lively, as did the “Spirit Stick,” the team’s never-say-die symbol that became a fixture in the postseason dugout. With the same cast of characters returning, this team shouldn’t get too tight, something that seemed to affect USC teams that bowed out in the regionals in 2008 and 2009.
GET A FEW BREAKOUT SEASONS
USC’s success could hinge on sophomore first baseman Christian Walker and junior right-fielder Adam Matthews stepping up with huge seasons. Both have the talent to put up big numbers offensively in key spots in the batting order. Walker’s hot bat late in the season played a defining role in the Gamecocks’ finally getting over the top. It also wouldn’t hurt if one or two of the new starters could approach double digits in wins, always a signal of top-notch teams. Cooper’s 13 wins and dependability as an ace made all the difference in that voyage to Omaha.
Jackie Bradley Jr.