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Bradley is USC baseball's next big thing

Gamecocks center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
Gamecocks center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

In February, USC coach Ray Tanner had this to say about first-year outfielder Jackie Bradley: "I don't know if he's going to be a freshman All-American, but he might be."

By the time the Gamecocks' season ended, Bradley had made Tanner look like The Amazing Kreskin.

Bradley earned consensus freshman All-America honors and a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team for a season in which he batted .349 with 11 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs, 46 RBIs and eight stolen bases. He also led the team with 69 runs scored and posted a .431 on-base percentage.

But while those numbers were an eye-opener for a freshman in the country's best college baseball conference, it was his defense in right field that set him apart.

"He did bring everything to the table to be successful immediately. It was all there," Tanner said this week as USC started fall practice. "He's a special player. I've been fortunate enough to have coached a few of those guys, and he's in that category."

Bradley finished his season in style in the NCAA regional at East Carolina. Although the Gamecocks lost the championship game to the host Pirates, Bradley was 9-for-18 with two homers and five RBIs at the plate, and made a handful of spectacular plays in right.

He took away a home run with a leaping grab against George Mason and made a string of running catches in the three games against East Carolina.

Many of his teammates no longer are surprised by anything he does. Tanner also marvels at watching him work on his defense during BP, running down balls Tanner never believes he would get to.

"It's almost like he knows where the ball is going before contact is made," Tanner said.

East Carolina coach Billy Godwin marveled as well at what he saw.

"His instincts for the game are superior, especially the jumps he gets on the ball," Godwin said. "I was really impressed, too, by the way he swung the bat when he got two strikes on him. His ability to make last-minute adjustments was really impressive."

Bradley entered his freshman season with the same confident mindset that Tanner had.

"I wasn't surprised at all. I felt like I had the talent and capability, first of all, to start, and then to get better as the season went along," he said, in such a matter-of-fact and unassuming way there is no hint of hubris in the words.

He understands what his skill sets are and works hard to put them in play.

"That's the way I carry myself. I feel if I'm confident enough in my game, I'm more comfortable on the baseball field," Bradley added. "It's a place where I can relax and be myself."

He calls all the postseason honors "a blessing," but he is not looking back.

"I try to look past all of that," he said. "I've got to get better. I'm never content."

Bradley never showed any of the anxiety or doubt many freshmen display. His cool approach to handling success and adversity convinced Tanner he had made the right decision to designate Bradley as a key player from the get-go.

"I made a point of encouraging him early, but it didn't take me long to see he didn't need that," Tanner said. He could take each experience he had and grow from it as a player on his own."

Bradley's maturity shows in all kinds of situations. Last November he had to overcome an eight-day hospitalization after being diagnosed with blood clots in his right arm and shoulder due to an extra rib restricting blood flow. He not only sailed through the semester academically, he also beat the four-to-six-month forecast of being sidelined by getting cleared to play in the opening-day lineup.

Bradley's upbeat outlook is evident in the way he approaches everything, but mostly in the enthusiastic way he plays the game.

He calls his favorite memory of last season the April 19 game against Auburn when fans serenanded him with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to celebrate his 19th birthday - fitting since he wears No. 19.

"That made me feel special," said Bradley, who went 1-for-3 in a 10-4 win.

As if that wasn't a fitting enough numerical salute, Baseball America magazine tabbed him the No. 19 prospect in the Cape Cod League, the summer collegiate league where the best players in the nation compete. Playing with a wood bat, Bradley batted .275 with six doubles, four triples, 14 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.

"It's going to make me 10 times better here," Bradley said. "I loved the experience of meeting the guys and playing against top-notch players from across the country."

Aaron Fitt, college baseball writer for Baseball America cannot say enough about good things about him.

"He's a budding future first-rounder," Fitt said. "He's got something you can't teach and that's electric bat speed. I think you'll see a power surge this season."

And like everyone else, he raves about Bradley's outfield play.

"That sets him apart," Fitt said. "You can tell by watching him play that he's got a feel for the game."

Bradley ended up in Columbia in large part due to Tanner's instincts. Bradley was not recruited by many major programs nor was he picked Major League Baseball draft after his senior season at Prince George (Va.) High.

"Believe it or not, in this day and age, he was overlooked," said Tanner, who liked what he saw when watching Bradley play center and bat leadoff for the powerful Richmond Braves travel team at the Perfect Game tournament at the East Cobb, Ga., complex.

After Bradley made a campus visit, Tanner was certain: "I couldn't get him committed quick enough."

Ironically, East Carolina was one of the other schools that wanted Bradley after assistant Link Jarrett, the ECU recruiting coordinator who moved to Auburn this past summer, also saw him playing at East Cobb. When Bradley kept making play after play in USC's one win over ECU in the regional, the Pirate coaches received an upclose look at the one who got away.

"Coach Jarrett turned to me in the dugout and said, 'I told you he could play,'" Godwin said. "I thought Coach Jarrett was going to slash his wrists."

When Bradley busted out during the regular season, Tanner knew he had a steal when he kept hearing from his peers.

"He caught the eyes of many, many coaches. They'd say, 'He's a freshman? Where did you get him from?'"

Bradley's standout play in right is going to draw him an extended look in center field this fall, as Tanner explores options that involve center fielder Whit Merrifield working out at second base and third base. Tanner is thankful to have players versatile enough with team-first attitudes that allows him to try different defensive lineups.

As much as Tanner likes to talk about Bradley's ability, he likes to talk even more about his young star's personality and attitude. He does not believe any more poise and good-naturedness could be squeezed into that 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame.

Too good to be true? Believe it.

"It's off the charts. I can't say enough good things about him. He's a great player, but he's a special person," Tanner said. "If you're going to be critical of Jackie Bradley, you're going to have to go searching."

Bradley understands all eyes are on him whenever he is on the field and carries himself accordingly. He also realizes that he is one of a small number of African-Americans playing college baseball, a figure that studies have placed under five percent.

Bradley said he has has grown accustomed to it after playing with very few fellow African-Americans since youth baseball. He hopes his presence can assist in selling the game to black youngsters.

"I feel like it's an opportunity for me to help the cause," Bradley said. "I'm trying to be a role model."

With Bradley and DeAngelo Mack forming two-thirds of USC's outfield last season, that probably did not hurt in landing commitments from two black players in the Class of 2010, outfielder DeSean Anderson of Greensboro, N.C., and utility player Patrick Harrington of Virginia Beach, Va.

But before those two arrive, Bradley will play his sophomore season. Ever-cool, he is prepared for the increased expectations and the attention that is bound to come with them.

"I don't think there's pressure as long as I be myself."

Ray Tanner is fine with that.