Ron Morris

May 2, 2010

Morris: USC's new style brings big results

Ray Tanner will tell you there is more managing going on with this South Carolina baseball team. That's because USC is playing a small-ball style longtime fans are not accustomed to seeing. This team has forced Tanner to practice what he preaches.

Ray Tanner refutes rumors that had him managing throughout most of his USC career from a rocking chair in the dugout. He says there is no truth to talk that he submitted the lineup card before each game, then leaned back and waited for his team's offense to produce three-run homers.

Tanner will tell you, though, there is more managing going on with this South Carolina baseball team. That's because USC is playing a small-ball style longtime fans are not accustomed to seeing.

Tanner has preached to each of his teams over a 23-year career to play with a sense of urgency and heightened awareness. This team has forced Tanner to practice what he preaches.

"As a manager, I tell myself, 'Don't take a pitch off. Don't relax on a single pitch,' because there is a sense of urgency," Tanner says. "There are a lot of buttons that could be pushed or have to be pushed, and decisions that have to be made."

Tanner gleefully admits this new approach is different from any team he has coached, either at North Carolina State or USC. Previously accustomed to littering the field with designated hitters, Tanner has opted to play defense over hitting. That goes hand-in-hand with having a deep and talented pitching staff.

Beyond that, USC is beginning to reap the benefits of a change in hitting philosophy that assistant coach Chad Holbrook brought with him two years ago from North Carolina. Instead of sending batters to the plate who swing out of their shoes, USC fields a lineup that settles comfortably in the batter's box while attempting to hit to the opposite field, advance runners, work the count in their favor, take walks and seldom strike out.

Look no further than USC's 32-8 record entering the weekend as a gauge to how the change has played out. This is a team that has transformed from the Oakland A's "Bash Brothers" style of the late 1980s to the club's "Moneyball" approach in the 2000s.

Just about any statistic bears out that hypothesis. USC is second in the SEC in both ERA and fielding percentage. It is fourth in on-base percentage, second in walks and second with the fewest strikeouts.

USC's home run total is down, but hardly nonexistent; its 48 long balls project to 84 by season's end. That would be the fourth-lowest total for any team under Tanner, but still ranks fourth in the SEC.

More telling is that USC is hitting behind runners and - gasp! - bunting runners into scoring position. USC has 39 sacrifice bunts, the first time any Tanner-coached team has ever led the SEC in that category.

This alteration in style came somewhat by accident, somewhat by design.

Prior to the season, Tanner believed this team would be much like his others. He figured Nick Ebert might improve on his 23 home runs of a season ago, but the first baseman slumped early and has not regained his power stroke. Tanner also figured Jackie Bradley and Whit Merrifield might improve on their 11 home runs apiece, but the two have 11 combined.

Going in, Tanner also was willing to sacrifice defense by starting long-ball hitting freshman Christian Walker at third base. When Walker started slowly, Tanner refocused on defense and inserted junior college transfer Adrian Morales, who provides solid defense and - as a bonus - leads the team in RBIs.

Tanner even experimented a few games with Scott Wingo providing more offense at shortstop, then recognized that slick-fielding, yet light-hitting, Bobby Haney was needed at shortstop behind a pitching staff that has proven to be the team's cornerstone. In previous years, Tanner might even have shifted Merrifield from outfield to shortstop to infuse more offense into the lineup.

With so many options, Tanner says he and his coaching staff spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing over whose name will appear on the lineup card each game. Additionally, with a staff that goes 12 deep, Tanner says he and pitching coach Mark Calvi are constantly talking in the dugout.

"We've had more dialogue in the dugout this year than in any year past because he's running the game, and at the same time I'm in his ear trying to be prepared for what's coming," Tanner says of Calvi.

While many of Tanner's teams over the years have been long on pitching, not since his 1990 N.C. State club walked more times (313) than it struck out (298) has one been as disciplined at the plate as this one. This team has 242 walks and hit batsmen compared to 232 strikeouts.

Holbrook says that is because everyone on the squad has bought into his philosophy of valuing every at-bat. It is a thought process he initiated almost immediately upon arriving in Columbia.

Holbrook remembers the first USC scrimmage of 2009 when he instructed every hitter to watch fastballs and "sit" on breaking balls. It was the opposite approach to what USC hitters had been taught, when they often swung and missed at breaking balls forever in search of the fastball to take out of the park.

"There are more ways to skin a cat, but it was just a different type of thinking and a different thought process than they were used to," Holbrook recalls. "That was probably the equivalent of a coach walking up to the Los Angeles Lakers and saying, 'We're not going to push the ball up and down the court, we're going to walk the ball.'"

Holbrook might as well have removed Tanner's rocking chair from the dugout that day.

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