At a recent USC baseball practice, coach Ray Tanner spotted former player Trey Dyson, who was hanging around, taking some hacks. Tanner wished he could have put Dyson back in uniform — and not because he wanted another slugger.
In his playing days, Dyson was an “outspoken leader,” according to Tanner, a rah-rah type. That seems to be missing from this year’s team, at least among its quartet of stars.
“There’s no better guy than Reese Havens or Justin Smoak or James Darnell or Phil Disher. But those guys don’t hold court,” Tanner said Wednesday. “They show up, they take 100 ground balls, they take swings, they go to the cage, they go to the weight room, but they don’t hold court. It’s not ‘Hey, gather around guys.’”
Tanner didn’t appear to mean that as a criticism. Baseball season is long, and living and dying with one game can burn out a team quickly.
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At the same time, this team has not met preseason expectations. It has a 38-21 record entering the NCAA tournament, which begins Friday for USC in the Raleigh Regional. The Gamecocks will be the second seed, after being in position a month ago to be one of the top eight national seeds.
Through it all, players have remained steadfast in their public comments. There has been no talk of adopting an underdog mentality or reports of players throwing water coolers.
Tanner said he agreed “absolutely” that the clubhouse is on an even keel, almost professional in nature, rather than fire-and-brimstone.
“It’s who they are,” he said. “It is a very, maybe not laid-back, but a very even-keel approach, which plays well to this game. But in college baseball, there’s always a sense of urgency and emotion. At times, I wish they’d been more emotional, but that’s really not who they are. And it’s not their personality to a great extent. We have some guys who speak some, but there’s not a Trey Dyson on this team.”
There is a Sam Dyson, however, a redshirt freshman who was named the starting pitcher for the opener against Charlotte. (Senior Nick Godwin likely will start Saturday’s second-round game.)
It seems part of the reason Tanner is impressed with Dyson is his confidence, which borders on a good kind of arrogance: He wants the ball.
Hitting never has been an issue for the Gamecocks. Smoak, Darnell and Disher picked up where they left off last season, and Havens had a resurgence. All four are expected to be picked in next week’s major league draft, with Smoak probably a top-10 pick and Havens and Darnell possible first-rounders.
Tanner said it would be “unfair” to wonder whether the players were distracted by their futures. He pointed out those players all had great seasons, and their focus always has seemed to be on the here and now, rather than the draft.
Darnell doesn’t see a connection between the team’s attitude and its performance. He points out that the team’s makeup is similar to that of the teams from the past two seasons, when each came within a game of reaching the College World Series.
“Every team’s got its chemistry, and every team’s got its little niches and things about it,” Darnell said. “This team, in particular, I think we’ve got a really good balance. We’ve got the guys in the dugout who like to get fired up and like to get going. You need those guys at certain times in your season.
“And you got guys who are even keel and are going to be consistent no matter what; whether you’re up, whether you’re down, they’re going play the same way.”
So does this team have the attitude needed to get to Omaha?
“Oh, yeah,” Darnell said. “I mean, you look at the past two years, the track record of getting within one game of Omaha. You know we’ve prepared ourselves in a way to get ourselves to go. And now we’re in the same position this year where we have that opportunity to go. So it’s just a matter of time.”
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.