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How USC’s unique pitching plan is paying off for the Gamecocks as postseason nears

Cayla Drotar is living her dream as a South Carolina softball player

Dual-threat player Cayla Drotar, a lifelong Gamecocks fan, is a Hartsville, S.C., native.
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Dual-threat player Cayla Drotar, a lifelong Gamecocks fan, is a Hartsville, S.C., native.

When Ricky Vaughn came out of the bullpen in a fictional American League playoff game in the 1989 movie “Major League,” he strolled to the mound as “Wild Thing” blared from the speakers, making Cleveland Indians fans go crazy.

As he became Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader, Mariano Rivera would emerge to the intimidating tune of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, making New York Yankee opponents quiver.

And when South Carolina softball coach Beverly Smith calls on Dixie Raley to close a game for the Gamecocks, Beckham Field is filled with its own unique sound.

Kind of.

“We have a fan that sits in the front row,” Smith said, “and as I soon as I bring in Dixie, he’ll say ‘Goodbye!’ to the other team.”

So maybe it’s not as playful as Vaughn’s or as dramatic as Rivera’s, but at least there’s a little buzz to Raley’s tweaked role this season. The 15th-ranked Gamecocks (34-12) are leading the SEC in saves. Raley, with four, is tied for third in the league. Cayla Drotar, Raley’s teammate, is second with five saves.

Carolina’s nine overall saves are already its third-most in school history. The record, set in 1999, is 12.

“I’ve never been a closer until I got here and Coach says, ‘You’re a good closer, you can come in and finish,’ ” said Raley, a senior and 2017 Georgia Southern transfer. “This is so, like, not who I am, but I’m obviously adjusting. It’s not any different. It’s still three up, three down.

“But it is kind of different coming in, so it’s something I’m getting used to. But I don’t mind it.”

While they’re finishing games, Raley and Drotar are starting them, too. The duo has a combined 18-8 record. They’re two of five pitchers Smith’s used this spring. This kind of flexibility is new to Smith. She used just three arms for all 66 games — and 433 innings — last season. But when that trio — Raley, Drotar, Kelsey Oh — returned, they welcomed freshmen Karly Heath and Rachel Vaughan to their staff.

The more depth, the more options.

“It’s turned out to be great,” said Smith, who’s in her ninth season at USC. “I have felt our depth throughout the season because I think every team runs their ups and downs of the season, so we’ve battled injury. And having a staff as deep as we do has really been able to cover up those wounds a little bit.”

Oh, a sophomore and reigning All-SEC freshman team honoree, injured her foot in February, allowing Heath (8-0, 2.48 ERA) some big early innings.

But the last two SEC weekends have been headlined by Raley and Drotar. Raley started and Drotar closed a 2-0 win over fourth-ranked Alabama on April 7. Drotar started and Raley closed an 8-4 win over No. 12 Auburn on April 14. The Gamecocks took both series.

“I always tell Dixie,” Drotar said, “and all our pitchers before any game, ‘I have your back.’ So in that role that I had (against Alabama), it meant a lot and it was just cool and it was fun because it was so competitive. And even though the game was so close, it made me want to be better because she did so well. And I wanted to do good to make her look good closing the game.”

With the NCAA Tournament a month away, Smith has developed trust in her rested but proven staff.

“We haven’t had to wear any one pitcher out and I think all of our pitchers have gotten good experience,” Smith said. “When you get the experience of the grind of an SEC series and pitching in the pressure situations and the type of hitters we have to face in league, they’re all seasoned now.

“So I think rolling into the postseason, we have an experienced group that have all been in the arena.”

The Gamecocks (7-10 SEC) begin a three-game series with Georgia (7-11) on Friday at Beckham Field.

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.


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