RALEIGH | THIS IS THE kind of lineup Ray Tanner envisioned in February, the kind that smacks the ball around the park from leadoff hitter Reese Havens to No. 9 guy Scott Wingo.
Those two, and everyone in between, contributed to an 18-hit attack Friday in South Carolina’s 15-8 victory against Charlotte in the opening round of the Raleigh Regional.
It has not been that way for most of USC’s topsy-turvy season. As late as two weeks ago, USC’s batting order beyond the fifth spot was considered a wasteland of offensive prowess.
“It’s just too much to consistently ask our guys in the middle of the order to win games for us,” Tanner said. “You’ve got to have some help somewhere else.”
So, Tanner made some changes — pretty bold ones, actually.
He moved Phil Disher out of his customary designated hitter slot and put him behind home plate. That sent catcher Kyle Enders and his .255 batting average to the bench.
Parker Bangs, with a .302 batting average and five home runs in 43 at-bats, became the designated hitter. Finally, DeAngelo Mack took over in left field, carrying with him a .278 average that includes six home runs in 97 at-bats.
All of the sudden, USC has the kind of batting order its fans are used to seeing. Four of the top five hitters swing from their collective heels, striking fear in the minds and arms of opposing pitchers. Now, the next three hitters can spray the ball to the outfield with line drives.
Even Wingo at the bottom of the order offers something, despite his .227 batting average. Wingo has parlayed 30 walks and 16 hit by pitches into a respectable .436 on-base percentage.
“If we’re going to win here, we’re going to have to hit from six to nine,” Tanner said. “That’s the key. (Justin) Smoak is going to get walked. They’re going to walk him, and somebody’s got to hit behind him. For us to be in the position we want to be in, we’ve got to have Parker Bangs and DeAngelo Mack to have good regionals.”
It played out perfectly in the pasting of Charlotte. USC received its usual production from the top five of Havens, Whit Merrifield, Smoak, James Darnell and Disher. They managed nine hits and drove in nine runs.
Behind them, the bottom four of Mack, Bangs, Andrew Crisp and Wingo produced 10 hits and drove in five runs. Crisp subbed for right fielder Harley Lail, who was injured in the second inning and left the game.
Should Lail not be available today or the remainder of the regional, Tanner will inject even more offense into the lineup with Crisp, who upped his batting average to .307 with a pair of hits Friday. Lail is hitting .235.
Lail’s presence in the lineup was representative of the predicament Tanner faced with USC’s lack of production at the bottom of the order. Tanner has been willing to sacrifice Lail’s offense for his outstanding defense.
Late in the season, USC was leading the nation in fielding percentage. But, as Tanner concluded, the tradeoff of offense for defense was not worth it. In moves that surprised no one, Tanner finally opted for offense over defense.
Of course, any such trade comes at a price. USC weakened itself defensively at catcher and in left field. There will be further decline on defense if Crips fills in for Lail, but you would not have noticed any dropoff on Friday.
Mack made a sensational diving catch in left field to rob Charlotte’s Chris Taylor of a certain double in the second inning. Crisp crashed into the right field wall to make a catch and deprive Taylor of a second extra-base hit in the fourth inning. Finally, Disher threw out a potential base stealer in the fifth inning.
Tanner began to shape USC’s new, energized bottom of the batting order during three SEC tournament games. The changes did not go unnoticed by Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs, whose club defeated USC on March 5 in Columbia.
“They’ve made some adjustments. They’ve made adjustments like good teams, good programs do,” Hibbs said. “When we saw them in March, they weren’t as athletic as they are now.”
That more athletic USC team translates into a much more dangerous team on its quest for Omaha.