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March 1, 2011

Neff Has Another Opportunity

FURMAN (4-4) at NO. 4 SOUTH CAROLINA (6-0)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Probable starting pitchers: Furman - LHP Nate Smith (0-1, 14.73 ERA). South Carolina -- LHP Steven Neff (0-0, 16.20)
Notes: South Carolina's first night game of the season, and first midweek game. ... USC has won 12 straight games dating to last year. ... USC won all of its midweek games in 2010. ... The Gamecocks lead the series 105-52-2 in a series that began in 1896, and have won the last five. ... Catcher Dante Rosenberg remains on the shelf with a bad back and is also doubtful for the weekend series with Clemson. Brady Thomas or Robert Beary will be behind the plate tonight.
Next up: USC hosts No. 12 Clemson at 7 p.m. on Friday in the first of a three-game series.

"Another chance."

When Steven Neff was named the starter for tonight's game hosting Furman, there was some head-scratching. The redshirt junior left-hander's last appearance, in a 9-4 win over Southern Illinois on Sunday, resulted in him throwing nine pitches, eight of which were balls, and one of those eight hitting a batter to force in a run.

But Neff is a veteran, and Ray Tanner likes his veterans, and there's no doubt that Neff has the stuff to be a productive pitcher at South Carolina. He wouldn't have improved his draft selection from high school to last year, despite pitching very sporadically, otherwise.

Neff has been handed another opportunity. Here's to hoping he uses this one to really get past that corner that has stuck out further and further during his career.

After missing one full season due to medical issues and being delayed in 2009 after breaking his hand while helping a friend move furniture, Neff got into four games and pitched well. In 2010, he got into 17 games, but after two straight shabby outings in the early season, was relegated to being a situational guy from the bullpen. After throwing a combined 5 2-3 innings against East Carolina and Clemson, Neff only pitched more than one inning one time for the duration.

The problem? He couldn't throw strikes consistently. He had the talent, with a sizzling fastball featuring some nice movement. He had the desire and the work ethic. But whenever he got out there, his stats were either very good or very bad.

It often seemed like Neff couldn't get out of his own way. Tanner never gave up on him, finding chances for Neff to pitch, and sometimes Neff would back up his coach's faith.

Then there were other times, like this year, where he didn't.

In the season-opener, Neff relieved Michael Roth and pitched 1 2-3 innings, with two strikeouts. But he also gave up six hits and three runs.

Then came last weekend's SIU game, where he again couldn't get the ball over the plate. That resulted in his ERA approaching restaurant-tab levels.

Tanner said that Neff will figure into the Gamecocks' success this year, and putting him into a starting role should help. He should have much better command and confidence taking the hill for the start of a game instead of warming up, then shutting down, in the life of a reliever.

Either way, Neff is receiving another chance. Tanner will give chances in the early season and if a player proves he can embrace it, will continue to receive them.

This is Neff's latest. Hopefully it won't be his last.

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