THE BUNTING WAS a little brighter, as were the garnet and white balloons released as the back-to-back national championship flag was raised beyond the center field wall. The first pitches thrown by Jackie Bradley and Scott Wingo, the past two College World Series MVPs, were more celebratory than ceremonial.
It was a glorious opening day of baseball for the two-time defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks. A 2-1 victory over VMI proved to be the proverbial cherry on the sundae.
About the only hitch were the uniforms. T & T Sporting Goods got the season’s first save by hand-stitching the names on the back of USC’s red-and-white pinstripes not long before Michael Roth delivered the first official pitch.
Once that technicality was taken care of, USC went about calming nerves.
USC coach Ray Tanner harkened back to the opener a season ago when Peter Mooney broke in at shortstop after transferring from Palm Beach Community College. Mooney had played most of his baseball life in front of crowds that consisted primarily of family and friends.
Then he stood in front of 8,242 fans for his first major-college game. Mooney, who participated in the pregame ceremony as a former player, said the enormity of it all hit him most during pregame drills and during the national anthem.
“I was glancing around, thinking this is real life. This is happening,” Mooney said. “It was nerve-wracking. After the first groundball came my way, it was more comfortable.”
Roth, USC’s opening day starter for the second consecutive season, said this time around he missed his buddy, Adrian Morales. Morales, a veteran at third base, would bark to Roth to “throw strikes.”
Roth will not have the luxury of a veteran infield this season. With the exception of junior Christian Walker, USC is breaking in a new infield with LB Dantzler at third base, Joey Pankake at shortstop and Chase Vergason at second base.
“Last year, Mooney got off a little slow, but he had Morales on one side and (second baseman) Wingo on the other,” Tanner said. “Now we’ve got three new guys out there. Who they going to lean on? Walker’s all the way over on first base.”
For Tanner, that means coddling, coaxing or whatever it takes to get his younger players to settle in and be comfortable. Four freshmen and two junior-college products started Friday.
Roth, who allowed a single run in six sterling innings, probably had to get three more outs than necessary because of play by his young infielders. Otherwise, Dantzler made a superb stab of a hot shot at third base and Pankake made the routine plays at shortstop.
“I’ve tried to explain to these guys, you’re good players,” Tanner said. “You’re not going to play good all the time, but that’s the way it needs to be. You can let your nerves get into it.
“You’ve got a packed house today and you’re playing your first game and you want to do well, I guess that’s natural. I had the butterflies and I’ve been doing it for a long time. So hopefully, they’ll be a little bit more relaxed (today), but they did fine today.”
As fate would have it, one of the new breed stood at home plate with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning in a 1-1 tie. Evan Marzilli led off the inning with a bunt single and advanced to scoring position on Adam Matthews’ sacrifice bunt.
After Christian Walker popped out, Dantzler stepped to the plate. Dantzler played a season ago at State College of Florida (Manatee-Sarasota), a school that has more letters in its name than it has baseball fans in its stands.
“The biggest adjustment is probably just getting used to being on a big campus,” Dantzler said earlier this week of attending USC. “Like this type of stuff, the reporters. At junior college, you don’t have any of that. It’s a small school, like four or 5,000 people and maybe 10 people come to your games.”
Never before had he experienced having thousands of fans counting on his every swing. First, Dantzler dug himself into a no-ball, two-strike hole. Then he fouled off a pitch. Finally, on the fourth delivery from VMI right-handed pitcher Alan Watts, Dantzler lined a single to center field.
Marzilli coasted home with the winning run.
“When I got to first,” Dantzler said, “it was pretty cool to look around and see the full crowd, everybody going crazy.”
The opening day nerves had vanished.