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April 18, 2011"Now every gambler knows, that the secret to survivin',
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep."
------------------------------------------------------- KENNY ROGERS
You should have heard the howling. Myself included.
"What's he thinking? Batters on the bench and he's DHing a pitcher?"
It's part of the life. As a sportswriter who's paid to ask questions about strategy, plus a purist of the game the way it's meant to be played (according to my point of view, at least), I often catch myself guessing or second-guessing the decisions that go on in the game in front of me.
This weekend's series, No. 3 South Carolina hosting No. 1 Vanderbilt, was no exception. I found myself on high alert on almost every pitch, trying to decipher what was going on between pitcher-coach and hitter-coach on every throw.
So when Steven Neff came to the plate, pinch-hitting for Robert Beary, in the eighth inning of a two-run game as the potential tying run, I joined with the rest of the head-scratchers.
Neff had not had an official at-bat since high school (Lancaster, class of 2007). Beary was 0-for-3 on the night, but his experience with batting was so far above Neff's it was ridiculous. Yes, the matchup (lefty bat vs. righty pitcher) made sense but in that case, I thought, surely you would have to forsake the matchup issue for a more experienced bat - Beary, or in the need to pinch-hit, perhaps Greg Brodzinski or Erik Payne.
Neff struck out on four pitches. The Gamecocks again left the tying run at the plate in the ninth and lost 6-4. I didn't think that by itself lost the game, but it surely didn't help win it.
I show up Sunday. Game 3. Rubber match. Gamecocks looking to snare first place in the division and league, claim tiebreakers over the other top two teams in the SEC and maybe get a few votes for a No. 1 ranking.
Steven Neff is batting sixth as starting designated hitter.
I can't write what I thought at the time because there may be children reading this. But you get the idea.
I questioned it in the live game blog, questioned it on Twitter, questioned it in a note I wrote to myself in my game-story shell when it would become finalized that the Neff experiment failed. Neff started 0-for-2, a long shot to right-center being caught at the wall, before he led off the seventh with the Gamecocks trailing 3-1.
And cracked a solid double down the line, where he hustled all the way around the bag and got into second just under the tag.
That was the start of a four-run winning rally against the Commodores' bullpen, clinching the game and the series for the Gamecocks. Call it luck or good karma or fate or whatever you believe in, but also call it Ray Tanner knowing exactly what he's doing.
Somehow, in a couple of days of batting practice and one at-bat that ended in an overmatched strikeout, Tanner saw something in Neff. "Neff is athletic," Tanner said. "I like who he is. He didn't seem to be fazed by a lack of experience."
Neff socked that double, and all of a sudden, the other questions disappeared. Why, with Vanderbilt catcher Curt Casali showing a clear lack of an arm behind the plate, weren't the Gamecocks trying to steal more bases? That would have saved some bunting outs. Why, with Scott Wingo leading off in the sixth and prone to getting hit or laying down a bunt single, wasn't there an attempt to bunt his way on while down two runs (Wingo struck out)?
Why, after USC had taken the lead and John Taylor being available in the pen, was Matt Price allowed to hit for himself in the eighth inning when there was always the danger he could get drilled with a fastball?
The answers to all of those were strikingly similar to the ones my parents gave me when I asked why I had to eat my squash. "Because I said so," they said then.
Tanner said, "Because I'm the coach," to me and the more than 24,000 fans that packed Carolina Stadium this weekend. Not literally, but figuratively, with a wave of his hand and a toss of his shoulders.
Good enough for me.
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