The South Carolina baseball team missed out on the College World Series in 2013 for the first time in four seasons, falling short by a deciding game against North Carolina in the NCAA Super Regional.
The Gamecocks have set their sights on a return to Omaha this season, and there is plenty of optimism that can happen. The SEC coaches picked them to win the nation’s best conference. Baseball America has USC ranked No. 7 in its preseason Top 25 poll. ESPN.com slotted the Gamecocks No. 3 in its Top 20 power rankings. It doesn’t hurt that this team returns 18 letter-winners.
Let’s go around the diamond and look at nine things the Gamecocks must do to get back to TD Ameritrade Park.
1. Display veteran leadership
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The nucleus of junior catcher Grayson Greiner, junior third baseman Joey Pankake, junior center fielder Tanner English and junior pitcher Jordan Montgomery has two years’ worth of frontline experience that understands what it takes to win in the NCAA tournament. It’ll be their jobs to lead the way for a very good supporting cast that includes sophomore second baseman Max Schrock and junior first baseman Kyle Martin.
2. Earn a tourney host role
Nothing propels the Gamecocks to the CWS like playing at Carolina Stadium. In NCAA regional and Super Regional play at home over the past four seasons, USC has compiled a 16-0 record. When the Gamecocks had to go on the road to Chapel Hill last season, they came up short. They must play well enough in the regular season to grab a top eight seed and home-field advantage through the tournament’s first two stages.
3. Pitcher with double-digit wins
A big-gun arm to front the rotation is virtually a guarantee. Of the 11 CWS teams in South Carolina’s storied history, 10 had at least one pitcher pile up double-digit victories. Earl Bass (17-1 in 1975), Randy Martz (14-0 in 1977), Dennis Lubert (12-2 in 1981), Joe Kucharski (11-3 in 1982), Mike Cook (16-2 in 1985), Gary Bell (10-3 in 2002), David Marchbanks (15-3 in 2003), Aaron Rawl (13-4 in 2004), Blake Cooper (13-2 in 2010) and Michael Roth (14-3 in 2011). Now it’s Montgomery’s turn.
4. Play good defense
Shaky defensive play is a surefire way to lose a pair of games in the NCAA tournament – the Gamecocks made nine errors in their three Super Regional games against UNC – and great plays translate into winning baseball. It’s no coincidence that USC’s two title teams featured excellent defenders such as Scott Wingo, Bobby Haney and Peter Mooney in the infield and Jackie Bradley and Evan Marzilli in the outfield. This team looks to be strong up the middle as well.
5. A transfer must step up big
If a junior-college transfer can have a strong season out of the gate, a team can quickly get better. Two of the team’s current coaches did just that for CWS teams – third basemen Brian Buscher (2002) and Adrian Morales (2010). First baseman Joe Datin came in to hit 23 homers in 1985, while center fielder Mookie Wilson ignited the 1977 run. Left-fielder Elliott Caldwell and shortstop Marcus Mooney are the key JUCO transfers this season.
6. Close the door
Two words are needed to explain this one – Matt Price. OK, here are two more – Blake Taylor. A big-time closer, someone who’s willing to embrace pressure with postseason games on the line, is like a certified check. Price was the final USC pitcher – earning a win and a save – in the two national championship seasons. Junior Joel Seddon begins this season in that role.
7. Find a freshman
If a first-year youngster can emerge as a key contributor, it can unexpectedly elevate a team. Think first baseman Christian Walker in 2010, outfielder Michael Campbell in 2003, first baseman Greg Morhardt in 1982 and catcher Chris Boyle in 1981. Pitcher Wil Crowe might be that freshman this season.
8. Discover depth
No team can ever completely avoid injuries, but it’s important to have role players who can provide a lift when a starter is out, especially during the grind of a 30-game SEC schedule. In the 2011 season, the Gamecocks overcame several injuries on the way to a title. In preseason play, coach Chad Holbrook has liked his team’s depth.
9. Just win
It doesn’t matter what kind of game is being played – close ones, blowouts, weekend, mid-week, slugfests and pitchers’ duels – the best college teams find a way to win 75 percent of the time. In their 11 CWS seasons, the Gamecocks have an average record of 50-16.