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Gamecocks making a new pitch

Sam Dyson
Sam Dyson

South Carolina pitching coach Mark Calvi's early appraisal of this season's staff involves a reference to the stunning end of last season, when the Gamecocks blew a 9-6 lead in the ninth inning to East Carolina in the championship game of an NCAA regional.

"We have some guys this year that, if we had them last year, we would have won that game," Calvi said. "John Taylor is one of those guys."

That extra-inning loss to the Pirates not only kept USC from advancing to a Super Regional, it kept a magnifying glass on one of the program's problems over the past four seasons - a lack of pitching depth, especially in the bullpen. No USC reliever has compiled more than seven saves in each of the past four seasons.

As the Gamecocks open the season Friday against Duquesne at Carolina Stadium, they appear to have the kind of depth - highlighted by veterans Blake Cooper, Jay Brown and Sam Dyson as well as newcomers Taylor, a junior-college transfer, and freshman Tyler Webb - who will make a difference

"Not only will we have more options, but we'll have more quality in those options," Calvi said.

The East Carolina loss was especially painful, given that USC had a 6-0 lead heading into the fifth inning. And it brought back bad memories of the 2007 Super Regional against UNC, when the Gamecocks blew a 6-0 lead in Game 1 and a 4-0 lead in the deciding Game 3. In Game 2 of the 2006 Super Regional against Georgia, a 4-0 lead slipped away along with a chance to go to Omaha.

"One of our missions as we recruit has been to bring in a stronger bullpen, because that's where we've lost some games," Calvi said. "I realize where the hole in the dam has been. It's not being able to hold a lead. And it's not just a matter of putting a thumb in it, but fixing it."

Part of the fix involves getting stronger performances from the starters. Last season's team ERA of 5.07 was the highest since 1997, coach Ray Tanner's first season at USC. The last time the team had an ERA under 3.50 came in 2004, when Gamecocks made their most recent trip to the College World Series.

But the pitchers like what they've seen during fall practice and workouts over the past month. Among them is Brown, an expected starter after posting a 3-0 record with a team-leading 3.35 ERA last season.

"We do have a deep pitching staff," said Brown, who picked up an additional season after being granted a medical hardship by the NCAA. "We've got older guys who, as coach Tanner says, have some stripes on their sleeves, and we've got some younger guys coming in who can play key roles on this staff. There's a whole list of people who I feel confident can get us through games, whether they're staring or coming out of the bullpen."

Brown believes there is going to be a battle to earn quality innings, something that can help the team over the long haul.

"Everybody is competing because everybody wants to do well," he said. "We're all looking at it as an opportunity to make the team better. It's good the competition is there."

Dyson, the ace right-hander, will be brought along slowly as he returns from offseason elbow surgery. That might allow Cooper, a senior righty with 21 career wins as the Sunday starter, to become more of a go-to guy.

"A lot of guys don't give Blake Cooper enough credit," Calvi said. "He can dominate a team when he's on. He can be as good as anybody."

Cooper, who dropped 20 pounds in the offseason, sees something with this staff that he hasn't seen the previous three seasons.

"The difference for us is we'll have some guys who'll go out there and throw strikes and have confidence in themselves," he said.

The Gamecocks have a solid mix of old and young as well as lefties and righties in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. Webb and sophomore left-handers Nolan Belcher, Steven Neff and Jimmy Revan will vie for the other starting slots. Taylor heads a bullpen that includes junior right-hander Parker Bangs, sophomore left-hander Michael Roth, freshman right-hander Ethan Carter and junior-college right-hander Jose Mata.

Calvi, who is entering his sixth season as USC's pitching coach, is confident they will hold up to the pressures of SEC baseball and NCAA postseason play.

"It's been banged into their heads that they need to be good every day," he said. "They need to be who they are and be consistent. Whether the score is 8-7 or 2-1, they've got to do what they have to do to win."