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August 25, 2013
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Of all the top-15 lists we're doing to celebrate GamecockCentral.com's 15th anniversary, this is without a doubt the hardest to do. I could list the next 15 not on here and that would be as strong as list as anyone's in the country. There are just so many names, so many great individual seasons and careers that it's an embarrassment of riches.
That having been said, I realize there's going to be blowback, and I'm OK with that. No way around it, especially when you're comparing pitchers with position players. But I will say that credence was given to Omaha, and even more credence was given national runners-up, and the highest credence was given to the back-to-back national champions. You simply can't argue with hardware, and boy, does this list have some hardware on it.
In this list I'm not going to list all of their individual accolades, because this thing would be 300 pages long, each player is so remarkably decorated. Nope, not doing it. If you're dying to, feel free to comb through pages 89-103)
1. Michael Roth (2009-12)
What can you say about the most successful player and inspiring team leader in USC history? Nothing other than put the man where he belongs, at No. 1, and thank God you got to watch the man pitch for the garnet and black. Like almost no other athlete in school history, here is a national champion whose character off the field and approach to life is as much a model for success as his performance on it. The Gamecocks may win back-to-back national championships again in the future, but the odds certainly don't favor it.
His feats against Clemson are the stuff of legend. He leaves a legacy in Omaha at the College World Series no other starting pitcher ever has matched - just think about that for a second. He remains (outside Clemson, of course) a beloved figure across the landscape of college baseball as a player, and his achievements in the classroom are as impressive as it's possible to earn. Take your best basketball players, take your best football players of the past 15 years, and I'd put Michael Roth ahead of any of them by about 1,183 miles - the distance from Columbia to Omaha, Nebraska.
One quick stat I will leave you with, in case you're not convinced he's No. 1: his postseason record, against the best competition in the country with the highest possible stakes, was 8-0 with a 1.33 ERA in 95 innings pitched. And one more, because I'm feeling generous - in 2011 as the No. 1 pitcher and first-time regular starter, he went 14-3 with a 1.06 ERA in 145 innings pitched, striking out 112 and walking just 41. Wow.
2. Jackie Bradley Jr. (2009-11)
Maybe the best pure talent to ever wear a baseball uniform at the University of South Carolina. Everything about Bradley Jr. was smooth, calm, fluid and composed. His demeanor, his uncanny break on balls, his approach at the plate - pure class all the way.
In 2010 Bradley Jr. led the school to its first national title in a men's sport with his glove and bat. He led the team in batting average (.368), RBIs (60) and was tied for the team lead in home runs with Whit Merrifield (13). A day after gong 3-for-4 with 4 RBIs that included a 3-run home run to pummel No. 1 seed Arizona State and avoid elimination, Bradley Jr.'s uber-clutch RBI single up the middle with two strikes and two outs to score Robert Beary from second tied the game with Oklahoma in the 12th inning at 2, then scored the winning run on a Brady Thomas single. Just as Michael Roth became the nationally recognized face of the Gamecock program in 2011, Bradley Jr. was it in 2010, earning the CWS Tournament MVP. He returned to Omaha with the team in 2011, but he had missed significant time due to injury and only just returned in time for Omaha. Still, just having him in the lineup, hobbled or not, was a boost to a team that had overcome adversity all year long, and Bradley Jr. will always be a two-time national champion, class act and, to my mind, the best center fielder to wear a USC jersey.
3. Matt Price (2010-12)
South Carolina has a history laden with amazing closers over the past 15 years, from the indomitable Lee Gronkiewicz to Chad Blackwell to Scott Barber. That none of those make this list should say something about the ones who do, and that of those who do. Matt Price leads all of them is the highest praise possible for the fireballer from Sumter who was so gutsy, ferocious and downright in-your-face, fist-pumpingly awesome over his magnificent career.
That, like Roth, he did so in the biggest
games, on the biggest stage and in the toughest spots over and over and over is what makes him a legend not just in Columbia, forever, but in Omaha, forever. Roth's four CWS wins are second-most in the event's long history. Number one? That'd be Matt Price's five. His 13 appearances in CWS games? Also the most in CWS history. No one appeared in more USC games in school history (102) or saved more games (43) than Price, and his postseasons were, also like Roth, his playground.
Finally, like Roth, I'll close with Price's postseason numbers. In 21 career postseason games, Price was 5-1 with 11 saves and compiled a 1.03 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 43.2 innings pitched.
4. Scott Wingo (2008-11)
Unlike so many on this list, Scott Wingo's name isn't plastered all over the USC record book. In fact, the only place he holds a school record of any kind is in times hit by pitch - in a game (3), as a freshman (17) and in a career (63). Of course, that speaks precisely to the kind of player Wingo was - a scrappy, do-whatever-it-takes player with a dirty uniform and a hunger to play.
I'd argue he's the best defensive second baseman in school history. As one of the 2010 and 2011 emotional leaders, his contribution to the unique and undeniable chemistry on those clubs cannot possibly be overstated. In 2010, his defense kept him in the lineup as he scuffled to a .247 average, lowest among the regulars. In 2011, however, a rejuvenated Wingo was second on the team in hitting with a .338 average, and not only was he a weapon at the plate, but somehow his defense was better, too.
Simply, Wingo's defense at the College World Series in 2011 was the best I've ever seen from a single player on such a stage at any level. The double plays he turned I can watch the rest of my life and never cease to marvel. He was a rally killer, a dagger in the heart of the hopes of opposing offenses. There was seemingly no ball he couldn't get, no play he couldn't make and nothing, really, offensively or defensively in 2011, he couldn't make if he made up his mind to. Wingo is an all-time great.
5. Christian Walker (2010-12)
Not much needs be said about the freshman from Limerick, Pennsylvania who came in and immediately established himself as a player for the ages. While few players can say they were back-to-back national champions, even fewer can say they were starters on teams that appeared in three straight national championship games. Walker's huge bat (.327, 9 HR, 51 RBIs in 2010; .358, 10 HR, 62 RBIs in 2011; .321, 11 HR, 55 RBIs in 2012) was instrumental to the team's success each year as was his superb defense.
His clutch hits were many, but perhaps none were as important as his monumental 3-run blast against Coastal Carolina in the bottom of the eighth to turn a 9-7 deficit into a 10-9 lead. Matt Price came in to close out the top of the ninth, and the Gamecocks were on their way to Omaha, and history.
6. Kip Bouknight (1998-01)
The best pitcher never to make Omaha. His 2000 season in which he won the Golden Spikes Award, college baseball's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, was beyond sensational. His 17-1 record, unbelievable as it is, doesn't even begin to describe how dominant he was, and that's as impressive of a win-loss record as you're ever going to see in college baseball, especially as a No. 1 starter going against the SEC's best every week. His ERA was 2.48, he struck out 143 batters in 144 innings and he was one of those rare talents who got stronger as the game wore on.
Bouknight holds nine school pitching records, including career starts (66), innings pitched (482), decisions (57), wins (17 in a season, 45 in a career) and strikeouts (457), and it's a shame he never got to go to Omaha, because had he been able to, I'm quite convinced his number on this list might be about five spots higher. As it stands, his 2000 season helped put South Carolina back on the national map and began the run of success it enjoys to this day.
7. Blake Cooper (2007-10)
Like Wingo, Cooper isn't a guy you're going to see all over the record book at USC. What he did in 2010, however, transforming himself in the offseason from a decent pitcher in 2009 (9-4, 4.50 ERA) to a beast of a No. 1 in 2011 (13-2, 2.76 ERA) was unbelievable. Cooper was a guy who went out and willed himself to win. Day after day, start after start Cooper mowed down the SEC's best, beat opposing pitchers who are in the Major Leagues now and was absolutely dominant in the wins over Clemson and then UCLA at the College World Series.
I'll never forget (or forgive) ESPN's Orel Hersheiser for going on and on and on about how amazing UCLA's pitching staff was while Cooper was throwing a no-hitter into the seventh inning and absolutely dominating the Bruins - all on three days' rest. I used to love Hersheier. Not any more. Cooper's determination set the tone for that team, and when you're the No. 1 pitcher on a national championship team, buddy, you've done something special in your life no one can ever take away.
8. Justin Smoak (2006-08)
In his three-year career, Smoak set school records for home runs (62), RBIs (207), walks (151) and total bases (485). His 62 home runs are good for fifth all-time in the SEC. When you're the school's all-time leader in home runs and RBIs, you're pretty darned good, and Smoak was a masher of the first order in an era when gorrilla ball was in its heyday. In 2008, Smoak was one of five Gamecocks to his double-digit home runs as he led the team with a .383 average and 23 home runs. Three other USC players hit 18 HRs or better that year (James Darnell, Phil Disher and Reese Havens). By comparison, the 2011 team only had one player in double-digits with home runs: Christian Walker, with 10.
9. Drew Meyer (2000-02)
Like Smoak, Drew Meyer's name is all over the record book and rightfully so. He's the school record holder for most games played in a season (75, a record shared with Trey Dyson & Brian Buscher), consecutive games started (75); most at-bats, season, (334 in 2002); and most hits in a season 120 in 2002). Meyer was the glue in the infield on teams that firmly established South Carolina among the nation's elite, and his huge year in 2002 (he was second on the team with a .359 average) was a big reason the Gamecocks took coach Ray Tanner to Omaha for the first time in his career, where they made it all the way to the championship game and, of course, beat some team from the Upstate twice along the way.
Meyer set the stage for a run of truly gifted shortstops, and his play puts him in the conversation for the best in school history at the position.
10. Michael Campbell (2003-06)
If you're scratching your head over this one, don't. Campbell is USC career leader in games played (255) and at bats (950) and is second all-time in school history in hits, with 299 (just four behind leader Mac White's 303). Only Drew Meyer had more singles (209 to Campbell's 201) and no one in school history had more triples (13).
Campbell's prolific offensive numbers are undeniable, as was his reliability. Campbell was a huge reason the 2003 and 2004 teams made the CWS and finished fifth and third, respectively.
11. Landon Powell (2001-04)
Arguably the best catcher in school history, Powell holds numerous school records, including season and career putouts (609,1,768) and assists (65, 190). He's also the school's all-time leading switch hitter, with 265 hits and was an anchor on three-straight College World Series teams.
12. Whit Merrifield (2008-2010)
If you have to ask why Merrifield's on the list, you're a lurker on this board and please leave now. His game-winning, national-championship winning hit against UCLA in 2010 will forever be remembered in South Carolina history, but even beyond that Merrifield merits selection here as the school record-holder for career hits by a right-handed batter (263) and holds the record for consecutive games batting safely with 26.
13. Blake Taylor (2001-02)
It's a shame Blake Taylor can't be a little higher up, because he was so versatile and so instrumental to the pitching success of the 2002 national runner-up team. He holds the school record for saves in a season with 21 in 2002 while also going 6-1 as a starter with a 2.63 ERA.
14. Trey Dyson (1999-02)
One of the all-time nice guys to play for the Gamecocks and a USC legend for his heroics at the College World Series against Clemson when he hit two home runs in one game to lead a 12-4 rout. The former first baseman is tied for first all-time in single season games played (75), and holds the school record for home runs in consecutive games (5 in 2000).
15. John Taylor (2010-11)
The linchpin of the relief staff on back-to-back national championship teams and the ideal setup man for the school's best closer. Taylor holds the single-season record for appearances with 50 and was virtually unhittable with his submarine, sidearm motion. In 2011 he was 8-1 with a 1.14 ERA, while in 2010 he was 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA.
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