June 16, 2010
By Charles Bennett
Special to NCAA.com
Three consecutive trips to the College World Series can create unrealistic expectations for a college baseball program, and no one knows that better than South Carolina coach Ray Tanner.
The Gamecocks return to the CWS this weekend for the first time since a three-year run of CWS prosperity that ended in 2004, and Tanner says it seems a lot longer.
“It’s been six years since we’ve been, but a lot of people act like it’s been 25,” Tanner said. “I get reminded of it quite often. Even my neighbors were saying, `When are you going back? It’s been so long.’”
South Carolina opens play in this year’s College World Series against Oklahoma at 2 p.m. Sunday at Rosenblatt Stadium with a team that is hard to put a finger on – even for Tanner.
The Gamecocks don’t hit a lot of home runs, don’t run particularly well, and their starting pitching is average once you get beyond staff ace Blake Cooper.
“This team just battled,” Tanner said. “I’m not sure we’re one of the better teams in the country. I know now that, on paper, we’re in the top eight. I don’t know that that’s who we are, but we have some good players. They’ve enjoyed each other’s company. They work hard, they play hard. They all get mad at me at the same time. They’ve really been good to deal with. I take guys out, I put new guys in, they handle it. You talk about putting the team first and this group has been able to do that. They like to win. They fight to the final out.”
While Tanner isn’t sure just how good the Gamecocks are, the players themselves believe they’re good enough to take it all.
“We want to do something this program ahs never done before,” said South Carolina outfielder Whit Merrifield. “We want to win a national championship. We want it really, really bad.”
The Gamecocks have been close – reaching the championship game in 1975, 1977 and 2002.
Whether this year’s team has the ability to get that far remains to be seen.
South Carolina is a team built on intangibles and a strong bullpen.
“I think you’re talking about synergy,” Tanner said. “I don’t think you’re talking about a team without ability. I don’t think that it’s a team that necessarily has overachieved. But it has been a good team that has done a little bit better than that because of the intangibles and because of guys who really pull hard for each other. You’re going to win a third of your games, you’re going to lose a third of your games. What do you do with the other third? We’ve talked about that a lot. This has been the kind of team that has understood that.”
South Carolina enters the CWS after a two-game sweep at No. 4-seed Coastal Carolina in the Super Regional.
The Gamecocks won Game 1, 4-3, and Game 2, 10-9.
Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore believes he has a good read on the Gamecocks.
“They designed a team that has pitching and defense and they just hang in there,” Gilmore said. “If they don’t score a few, they’re going to get beat. They went through stretches this year where they didn’t hit, and they got beat every single time. With them, you’re going to have to continually battle and battle and battle and try to get leads and force the issue with them. They play such good defense, they throw strikes, and they’ve just got so many pieces. The depth of their pitching staff is unbelievable.”
Along the way, Tanner has shuffled the lineup, shuffled his pitching, and seemingly come up with the right combinations most of the time.
“It has been a very difficult year from that standpoint,” Tanner said. “If you remember, we were platooning in the middle of the order. I’ve told them on numerous occasions, `You’ve got to hang with me. You guys have to be a team. I don’t know from day to day what I’m going to do and how I’m going to maneuver the lineup or who I’m going to put in. You’ve just got to accept your roles and let’s try to win.’
“I wish it were clear cut. It would be a lot easier for me, but it hasn’t been. So we’re urging our team to try and win games. Whatever is required.”