David Cloninger

Gamecocks’ reluctant hero: Hunter Taylor not buying his hype

The newest hero in South Carolina athletics history didn’t show up for practice with an entourage or with his nose in the air. He was actually looking around for his catcher’s mask – that’d be as good an excuse as any not to talk to the horde of reporters.

“Oh, my God … ” Hunter Taylor began with a touch of frustration. “Life’s pretty good, I guess. I don’t think it’s changed any. I’m still the same person I was before. I had good luck and it hit the bag. It’s not a big life-changer by any means.”

Not to hear him tell it. Taylor describes his line drive that smacked into third base, up and over Duke’s third baseman to drive in the game-winning run on Saturday like he’s waterproofing his deck.

To hear coaches, teammates and fans tell it, it’s not even the game-winning hit. It’s The Hit That Saved South Carolina’s Season.

“Something weird happened,” coach Chad Holbrook said. “It was like, ‘Oh! We got a break. Oh, we can be ahead in a game here in a regional.’ The fact that he got that hit in that moment, that had a lot to do with turning the momentum around in this whole weekend. No doubt in my mind about that.”

That ball gets caught – which the fielder was in perfect position to do, until it ricocheted off the base – it’s most likely an out and the Gamecocks have a man at second with two outs. Maybe he scores, maybe he doesn’t, but if the Gamecocks don’t score, the Blue Devils are batting in a 2-2 game with a chance to walk it off.

USC would be sitting home right now, winless in an NCAA Regional for the first time since 1983. Instead, the Gamecocks are two wins from the College World Series and host Oklahoma State in this weekend’s Super Regional.

Taylor’s the cause. Like Erik Kimrey and Travis Kraft before him, he’s a guy who has been around and suddenly stepped in to deliver a game-winning play. In this case, he continued USC’s season.

“I can’t say that,” Taylor dismissed. “I think either way, we were going to do the same thing we did.”

C’mon, man!

“Might have helped us a little bit,” he conceded. “Right then, I knew we were going to win, and I think the team did, too.”

Bring up Taylor and players echo each other – “great teammate,” “humble,” “good person.” It hasn’t been easy for Taylor this season, playing in 14 games after starting 26 of 32 as a freshman.

“To be honest, I couldn’t do what he did this year,” said roommate Alex Destino. “Him being an almost everyday guy last year, that was definitely kind of a big reality check for him. But he handled it so well, remained a great teammate, kept a great head on his shoulders throughout the whole process.”

Holbrook hated to sit him, but Taylor was the odd man out among newcomers Chris Cullen and John Jones. Jones was mired in a horrific slump the last half of the season and Holbrook likes to rotate catchers, so when Jones showed up late for the pregame meal last Saturday, the decision was made. Taylor was starting.

He made the all-regional team at catcher and has earned a new nickname in the clubhouse.

“We like to pick on Hunter, call him the hero,” Destino said. “And that drives him absolutely insane. I’ll call him that at the house and he’ll try to fight me.”

Taylor came to practice Thursday ready to work. One got the sense he was bored talking about his moment.

“It doesn’t change because one good thing happened,” he insisted. “We’ve still got to come and still got to hit the ball next weekend. Season’s not over.”

His hit made sure of that.

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Columbia Super Regional

What: Best-of-3 series with winner advancing to College World Series

Who: Oklahoma State at South Carolina

When: 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2), 3 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2 or ESPNU), TBA Monday

Where: Founders Park

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