Adam Matthews and Jim Toman remember the camps vividly. Toman, an assistant coach at South Carolina at the time and now the head coach at Liberty, was scouting players. Matthews, a rising junior at White Knoll High School, was hoping to catch the eye of any college coach at the Diamond Prospects Showcase in Charleston.
The baseball standard for judging a player’s speed is the 60-yard dash, just as 40 yards is the measuring stick in football. So Matthews sprinted 60 yards as stopwatches clicked among the smattering of college coaches.
“My hitting was awful, my throwing was awful,” Matthews said. “I did nothing right other than run quickly in a straight line.”
His 6.4-second time startled Toman enough to invite Matthews to USC’s camp a couple of weeks later. Again, Toman timed Matthews over 60 yards. This time, Toman’s stopwatch read 6.45 seconds.
“I looked at my watch and I said, ‘This can’t be right,’ ” Toman said this week. “You very rarely see a guy run a 6.6, let alone a 6.45. When we ran him a second time, he ran a 6.48.
“I said, “Man, this is legit.’ ”
Four years later, Matthews has parlayed that blinding speed into a promising college career at USC — earning the starting left-field assignment and establishing himself as coach Ray Tanner’s leadoff hitter.
Beyond that, Matthews continues to leave his teammates, opponents and big-league scouts awestruck by his speed. There is no such thing as a routine grounder to shortstop off Matthews’ bat. A couple of USC opponents have thrown late to first as Matthews whizzed past safely.
In the outfield, Matthews sometimes can take circuitous routes to fly balls, yet overcomes his mistakes by using his speed to run down the ball. He continues to hone his bunting skills, knowing any time he places the ball on the infield grass near the first or third base line he will be standing safely on first base.
“It was God’s gift. God gave me the ability to run,” Matthews said. “It’s gotten me where I am today.”
Matthews is arguably the fastest runner in USC baseball history. Shortstop Drew Meyer, who played from 2000-02, was in Matthews’ category with a 60-yard time of 6.45, according to Toman. Davy Gregg (2003-05) possessed tremendous bat control and used his 6.6 speed to beat out bunts.
Tanner said Matthews compares favorably in speed to Mike Curry, who played from 1996 to 1998 and holds the school’s career stolen-base record with 122. Then there was Brian Roberts, who in 1999 set the USC single-season record with 67 stolen bases. Roberts was adept at reading pitchers’ moves and had instinctive base-stealing skills. His best time over 60 yards was 6.7 or 6.8, according to Toman.
Allan Simpson of Perfect Game USA said Matthews’ 6.4 speed would grade out as exceptional on the major-league level.
Matthews said his fastest time was 6.31 at a Coastal Carolina camp following his sophomore year in high school.
“When I’d go to a camp where I wasn’t really well known, they would say, ‘Can you run that again? I must have had a quick finger or something.’ ” Matthews said. “Then I’d run another pretty good time and they were like, ‘All right, good job.’ ”
Since then, Matthews has worked with running coach Josh Ortegon of Athlete’s Arena in Irmo. The focus is on stretching, agility and the mechanics of running. The idea is for Matthews to improve at base running, base stealing and to better harness his speed in the field.
“I know a bunch of people would say, ‘How come this guy is so fast and how come this guy has this talent and he doesn’t use it?’ ” Matthews said. “I know that. It’s not like I intentionally don’t use it. I’m trying to get to where I’m in a comfort zone using my speed and my power. I like to consider myself a five-tool player, and it’s something I’m trying to put it all together.”
USC fans likely are seeing the budding stages of a standout player. Matthews probably has as much raw hitting power as anyone on the team, though only two home runs to show for it. His average is .295, and his fielding has improved dramatically. He leads the team with four stolen bases, but in only six attempts.
“I’d say by the time he’s 25 or 26, he’s going to be a very good baseball player,” Tanner said. “He’s very good right now, but he’s still growing and still learning the game.”
For the remainder of Matthews’ growth spurt at USC, fans and teammates will continue to be treated to watching his exceptional speed. Pitcher Patrick Sullivan, an AAU teammate of Matthews’ in high school, refers to the speedster as “White Lightning.”
Matthews possesses a rare talent, one best shown during his freshman season in a game against Arkansas at Carolina Stadium. Matthews scooted around the bases for an inside-the-park home run — standing up.
“You can’t do that. Nobody’s done that,” Tanner said. “Who’s done that? Nobody.”