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Shorthanded to start: 5 questions facing USC baseball

University of South Carolina #47 1B Nick Ebert tosses a grounder to picture Sam Dyson for an out in the third inning against Auburn at Carolina Stadium on Fri. April 17, 2009.
University of South Carolina #47 1B Nick Ebert tosses a grounder to picture Sam Dyson for an out in the third inning against Auburn at Carolina Stadium on Fri. April 17, 2009. Erik Campos

With high hopes entering this season, the No. 10-ranked USC baseball team has its sights set on returning to the College World Series for the first time in six years.

But nine days before the first pitch is scheduled to be thrown against Duquesne at Carolina Stadium, coach Ray Tanner's Gamecocks have encountered enough adversity to last an entire season.

Getting past the early part of the schedule without a couple of key players is just one of the questions heading into 2010.

HOW DOES JACKIE BRADLEY'S INJURY STATUS IMPACT THE OUTFIELD?

Arguably the team's best all-around player, the sophomore center fielder broke a bone in his right hand during a scrimmage this past weekend. He is expected to miss between four and eight weeks after having surgery this week. While losing Bradley in the short term hurts offensively and defensively, it allows other players to gain experience.

Junior Whit Merrifield returns to center, where he earned All-SEC defensive team honors and had a breakout offensive season. Sophomore Adam Matthews moves to right, where he can showcase his combination of power and speed with a full season of at-bats.

While Bradley is out, junior-college transfer Robert Beary and freshman Evan Marzilli are competing for the open spot in left. Beary brings more experience, but Marzilli has shown rapid improvement in preseason scrimmages.

WHAT HAPPENS UNTIL NICK EBERT IS REINSTATED?

The senior first baseman turned down an offer to sign with the New York Yankees after being drafted in the 32nd round last summer. But his plan to serve as USC's cleanup hitter - he batted .321 with 23 home runs and 72 RBIs in that spot last season - has been derailed by academics.

Ebert was flagged for not making required progress toward his psychology degree. Until he regains his eligibility, which might not be until the semester is over in May, his replacements must help fill the power void. Senior Jeffery Jones is the front-runner to start opening day, something he did a year ago before Ebert eventually won the job. Sophomore Michael Roth and junior Parker Bangs can play the position, but Tanner views both as pitchers first and position players second.

IS THE PITCHING STAFF BETTER THAN THE PREVIOUS TWO SEASONS?

The short answer is yes. The long answer depends on the progress of ace right-hander Sam Dyson from offseason elbow surgery as well as a bullpen that appears deeper. A weekend rotation of Dyson, senior right-hander Blake Cooper and sophomore left-hander Nolan Belcher is solid, especially with senior right-hander Jay Brown, sophomore left-hander Steven Neff and freshman left-hander Tyler Webb battling for starting roles as well.

The closer's role is up for grabs, with junior-college transfer John Taylor, who had a spectacular summer for Florence in the Coastal Plain League, and right-hander Bangs competing for the spot.

Among the solid arms battling for innings out of the bullpen include sophomore left-hander Michael Roth, freshman right-hander Ethan Carter, sophomore left-hander Jimmy Revan and junior-college right-hander Jose Mata. The strong mix of righties and lefties, as well as both veterans and newcomers, should give Tanner flexibility.

WILL SCOTT WINGO HIT WELL ENOUGH TO KEEP THE SECOND-BASE JOB?

A tremendous defensive player, Wingo is an asset even though he has hit a combined .211 in his first two seasons. But Tanner loves offense, so he brought in junior-college transfer Adrian Morales, a 45th-round pick of the Astros last June, to push Wingo.

The competition has proven to be a good one. Wingo hit the ball well in the fall, and his defense remains spectacular. Morales has shown ability, too, which will give Tanner the option of going with the hot hand.

Because offense might be a question to start the season with Bradley and Ebert out, it will be important for whichever one is playing to contribute with the bat.

CAN THE GAMECOCKS SURVIVE UNTIL THEY'RE AT FULL STRENGTH?

The depth appears to be there, but it's going to require new additions such as slugging freshman third baseman Christian Walker to step up. Before they get to the SEC schedule, the Gamecocks have difficult weekend series against No. 18 East Carolina, which knocked them out in the NCAA regionals last season, and No. 15 Clemson.

But they also weekend series against Duquesne and Brown that they are capable of sweeping. Other pre-SEC opponents include Presbyterian, Valparaiso, Furman and Davidson, which means the Gamecocks have a shot at compiling a good record before starting a conference slate that includes four top-25 teams.

USC doesn't play defending national champ LSU this season.

If USC holds its own until Bradley and Ebert return, that dream of making it to Omaha looks to be realistic.

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