Christian Walker and Matt Price warmed up Friday afternoon at Fluor Field as they had the previous three seasons when the South Carolina baseball team played Clemson and Furman. But this time, they weren’t wearing garnet and black.
Instead, they sported the orange and black of the Delmarva Shorebirds, the Maryland-based Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, for a South Atlantic League game against the Greenville Drive.
“It’s good to come back here and see a familiar place,” said Price, Baltimore’s seventh-round pick in last summer’s MLB draft after leaving USC as the program’s all-time leader in saves and appearances.
Both Price and Walker, a first baseman who was selected by the Orioles in the fourth round last summer, expected to see a mix of family, friends and former teammates and coaches over the course of the four-game series between the teams. The duo played huge roles in USC’s three straight trips to the College World Series championship finals from 2010 to 2012 and two national titles.
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But these days, it’s all about stepping up the organizational ladder to Baltimore.
“Everybody’s trying to work for one goal, and that’s to make it to the big leagues,” Price said. “You try to be the best baseball player you can.”
They believe their background as collegiate stars at one of the top programs in the country is going to help them succeed in the minor leagues.
“Playing in the SEC and seeing pitching like that has definitely prepared me for similar situations here,” Walker said. “It’s everything I thought it was going to be, good pitching, good hitters. It’s similar to what was going on at South Carolina. All these guys are here for a reason. They’ve earned what they have.”
In his USC career, Walker batted .336 with 248 hits — ninth on the school’s all-time list — 30 home runs and 168 RBIs while developing into an All-SEC defender at first base. His clutch performances got him named to the CWS all-tournament team all three seasons as he tied an Omaha record with 28 career hits.
In 102 appearances at USC, Price went 18-9 with a 2.76 ERA, 43 saves and 267 strikeouts in 2121/3 innings. He tied the record for career appearances in the CWS with 13.
It’s a different world in the minors, however. Instead of four games a week over 3½ months, the teams play 140 games in about 150 days. Navigating the season through the pitfalls of tough travel, slumps and injuries can be difficult.
“It’s a long season. You’ve just got to stay in there and grind,” Price said, noting his team’s 12-hour bus ride earlier in the week to Savannah. “Riding that bus, you kind of go crazy, but it’s OK. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love the game. You get tired of the hotels, but you’ve got to get used to it. That’s just minor league baseball.”
There’s also a lack of familiarity with the many of the opposing players in the 14-team SAL.
“You have to make minor adjustments at the plate, such as seeing pitchers for the first time,” Walker said: “He doesn’t know you, and you don’t know him. It’s just a contest of who can make the first adjustment.”
Entering Friday’s game, Walker was batting .361 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in 20 games. Price has posted a 1-0 record with three saves and a 4.70 ERA in seven appearances.
Both of them marveled at the fact that former USC teammates Jackie Bradley, who roomed with Price for three years, and Michael Roth made their way to the major leagues this month with the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Bradley, however, was sent back down to Triple-A after he struggled at the plate.
Price, a Sumter native, talked with Bradley on the phone for an hour after the outfielder made Boston’s Opening Day roster.
“I was so happy for him,” Price said. “Once Roth got called up, I was, like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ ”
Walker also was thrilled by their rapid rises.
“You’re excited and curious to see how they’re going to play at that level,” he said. “We’ve had Gamecocks play there before but none that I’ve known personally. It’s been a pretty neat experience.”
Both Price and Roth understand that’s the exception and that they must keep working hard and playing well to make more incremental jumps in the Orioles’ system. They’re thankful to have the support of each other. They live together with the same host family in Salisbury, Md., and they room together on the road.
“It’s good to be around someone you know and have someone on your side like that,” Walker said.
The pair run into many people — whether they’re fans or opposing players — who recognize them from their playing days at USC, which included all those nationally televised CWS games. They have a real fondness for their Gamecock days.
“Looking back, it was the best experience of my life,” Walker said. “There definitely are no regrets there.”