The regular season has ended in fine fashion.
By winning two-of-three against Alabama on the road, the Gamecocks won their first SEC championship since the 2002 season. At 44-12 overall and 22-8 in the SEC, they showed how a team really is the sum of its parts, especially considering the number of makeshift lineups they needed to employ due to injuries.
As they prepare for the SEC tournament followed by the NCAA tournament, let’s take a look back at the players who have made South Carolina a serious contender to repeat as national champions.
Most Valuable Player
It’s not hard to figure this one out. Sophomore first baseman Christian Walker leads the team in at-bats (218), batting average (.358), runs (53), hits (78), doubles (18), homers (9), RBIs (57), total bases (125), and slugging percentage (.573). Any more questions? Walker has also improved tremendously on defense, getting better at scooping throws out of the dirt as well as making plays around the bag. Twenty pounds leaner than he was a season ago, he also has trimmed the fat out of his game. With his great discipline and consistent hard contact at the plate, it’s easy to say that he’s the most feared Gamecock.
Most Valuable Pitcher
There are Friday night starters, and then there are true aces. Junior left-hander Michael Roth quickly developed into a true ace this season in his first go-around as a starting pitcher. The numbers don’t lie. In 14 starts, he has a 10-3 record with a ridiculous 1.28 ERA. Over his 98 2/3 innings, he has allowed just 81 hits and 25 walks while striking out 87. With his ability to change speeds, throwing his breaking pitches for strikes, and an improved fastball, Roth has befuddled hitters all season. Now he just has to show that he has the stamina to keep it going through the postseason. He certainly possesses the determination.
Ministers of Defense
You can’t say Scott Wingo without saying Peter Mooney. You can’t say Peter Mooney without saying Scott Wingo. Just as Wingo teamed with Bobby Haney for two seasons to form a airtight combination up the middle, the senior second baseman has developed the same sort of relationship with Mooney, the junior college transfer at shortstop. Both have excellent range and the ability to turn almost-certain hits into outs. Both make all the routine plays as well as their share of spectacular ones. Mooney experienced a mild fielding slump early in the season but has displayed his ability since that time. And it’s going to be difficult for Tanner to replace the high-energy Wingo, who’s also hitting a career-high .340 this season, after four stellar seasons.
Middle relievers don’t get a lot of glory. They exist to bridge the game from the starting pitcher to the closer, and it’s rare that their numbers get noticed. John Taylor is the exception. The side-arming senior right-hander has put together an once-in-a-lifetime season out of the bullpen. All he does is pile up the outs. In 38 appearances, a new single-season school record, he has posted a 4-1 record with a sparkling 1.16 ERA. In his 54 1/3 innings, he has allowed just 32 hits and 20 walks while striking out 56. Of those 32 hits, only seven have gone for extra bases, with no homers. Opponents are hitting .171 against him. Game after game, he gives the Gamecocks a better chance to win.
There’s nobody quite like Steven Neff on this team. The junior left-hander began the season as one of the team’s key starters and worked his way into the weekend rotation. He’s ending it as one of the key hitters in a reconfigured lineup due to a rash of injuries. Pressed into action as an outfielder and designated hitter, Neff has regained the batting stroke that made him a high school standout. His three homers in back-to-back wins over Arkansas catapulted the Gamecocks to a big series victory. And he remains a reliable pitcher, too, with a 3-1 record and 2.45 ERA. Before this season ends, expect him to keep contributing at both spots.
Freshman of the Year
With USC fielding a veteran team, it has not needed much help from its freshman class. But one freshman stepped up in a big way. Right-hander Forrest Koumas became one of the team’s most reliable arms after working his way into the starting rotation near the beginning of the SEC schedule. Since that time, he has pitched with the poise of an upperclassman. His 16 appearances, which include nine starts in conference play, have netted him a 6-0 record and 3.05 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 59 innings. A product of Lugoff-Elgin High School, where he won a state championship as a senior, he isn’t rattled by the pressure of facing some of the best college teams in the nation. And he’s only going to get better.
The Buck Stops Here Award
When Ray Tanner makes his final call to the bullpen with the Gamecocks leading, he is sending a message to opponents. Get your last rites. Sophomore closer Matt Price is going to make sure that you don’t come back to life. Just as he did in last season’s run to the national championship, Price has done the same this season. He’s 5-3 with 15 saves and a 2.59 ERA as well as 56 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings. Using a fastball and slider, the hard-throwing right-hander brings an intimidating presence to the mound along with a boost of confidence for his teammates. He could break the school record of 30 career saves before the season is over. The Gamecocks never lose when leading after eight innings. Price is the reason.
Senior third baseman Adrian Morales is brash and loud. Senior catcher Brady Thomas is steady and quiet. Both players serve as veteran leaders with their standout play and team-first qualities. Morales is a gamer who’ll do anything to win, whether it’s making a diving stop on a ball in the hole or drilling a key late-inning RBI double. Thomas provides a calm influence while handling the pitching staff when he’s not hitting line drives all over Carolina Stadium. Both played significant roles in USC’s run to the national title a year ago, and both are displaying the same winning characteristics in this adversity-filled season. No two players exemplify what this team is about more than Morales and Thomas.