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Regions Park: House of horrors

HOOVER, ALA. — It serves as an appropriate oddity: Reese Havens hit a dramatic home run Saturday to put USC into the SEC baseball tournament — where Havens’ shot might not have left the park.

Regions Park, among the biggest ballparks in the nation, is where home runs come to die. And lately it’s been where the Gamecocks’ offense has expired as well.

So a return trip doesn’t bode well for a team that has been built on power the past few years.

“It’s a graveyard, for sure,” Havens said.

USC star first baseman Justin Smoak — the program’s all-time home run leader — found that out last year. He hit three balls that would have been homers at Sarge Frye but stayed in Regions Park. The Gamecocks ended up homerless in three games, after leading the nation in home runs during the regular season.

That was nothing new for South Carolina. The past four years, its rate of home runs at the SEC tournament has been well below its average the rest of the season:

In 14 games at Regions Park since 2004, the Gamecocks have six home runs, or .43 per game. During that span in other games, they have averaged about 1.5 homers per game.

It’s had an effect on the Gamecocks’ run-scoring and, ultimately, their performance. They have averaged 4.2 runs per game at Regions Park since 2004, well below their regular-season average of seven.

When the Gamecocks won the SEC tournament in 2004, they did it with pitching. USC scored 18 runs in four games, including two home runs.

“The teams that really rely on home runs, that field’s an equalizer,” Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said. “The way to win is you certainly have to pitch and play defense.”

The dimensions at Regions Park are 340 feet down the lines, 385 to the power alleys and 405 to center.

USC’s Sarge Frye Field is a bit more cozy — 325 down the lines, 360 to the power alleys and 390 to center — which might help explain why the Gamecocks have been worse on the road (10-11) than at home this season (27-8).

The Gamecocks claim not to be intimidated by the dimensions at Regions Park. Havens denied his team was at a disadvantage, and coach Ray Tanner made light of it.

“Smoak’s not going to be bunting, more than likely,” he said, smiling. “It’s not impossible, but it’s improbable.”

Still, Tanner admitted he could make some “minor adjustments” in strategy. There might be more hit-and-run calls, even with Smoak and James Darnell. Tanner also would be more inclined to turn speedy Whit Merrifield loose in a base-stealing situation.

For the most part, however, USC will keep the same strategy — the long ball.

“You are who you are,” Tanner said. “Your team is made up throughout a year, and you can’t change it. You might make some adjustments, but you can’t change it because the venue is different.”

Of course, there is a flip side to all this: Regions is a pitchers’ park, and the Gamecocks have those too.

“I know I like it,” said USC senior Nick Godwin, who likely will start Thursday’s second-round game. “You don’t have to be perfect all the time. If you get behind, you can challenge players because you know more than likely it’s not going to get out of that park. ... Just let them put it in play and let your guys run it down.”

South Carolina’s hitters probably would rather let the fans beyond the outfield wall run those balls down. This is the wrong week for that.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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