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April 25, 2011

COMMENTARY: Team Chemistry Adds Another Element

"Found out about you."
------------- GIN BLOSSOMS

When you're Ray Tanner and you've won over 1,000 games, some of them to clinch conference titles, milestones and one that obtained a national championship, picking one or a handful of games that really stand out can be hard.

Tanner didn't hesitate on Sunday.

"Of all the games I've been involved in over the years, this is a game that means a lot to me," he said after South Carolina beat Mississippi State 13-4 to win the series. "Because of the way we went after it when we didn't really have enough soldiers today."

With 17 games left to play in the regular-season and then the postseason, Sunday stood out? Sure, it was a conference game, a rubber match to take a series and as it turned out, a game to remain tied for first place in the league. But even with a loss, there was plenty of time to recover from it.

Tanner knows he has a special group this year, a mix of returnees from a championship team that takes the game as seriously on the field as it does having fun off it. It's been a treat to watch this year's Gamecocks mix the fun into the game, leaving Tanner to sit and marvel at how a team can be so loose but play so well at the same time.

Only hours after losing the Saturday game and finding out its most dynamic player, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., was going to be out for Sunday (and maybe quite a while longer), the Gamecocks woke up at their hotel and found out more bad news. Evan Marzilli had taken ill during the night - while USC is bound by federal laws about health privacy and Marzilli's specific ailment isn't known, he was going to be out for Sunday and perhaps longer.

Tanner, through 15 years as USC's coach, has carried the mantra of "Got to win anyway." He could relay that point in several ways, but as his tenure has progressed and he's softened a bit on rules governing his players' appearances and approach to the parts of the game not related to the actual performance, Tanner has learned to express the sentiment without being the stern man in charge.

"Coach Tanner gave us a little talk about determination and just going out and winning anyway," first baseman Christian Walker said. "That's what we did today."

The Gamecocks did, unshackling their bats from mostly a season-long lockup and walloping baseballs all over Dudy Noble Field. Walker led the way with a Herculean 10-of-11 weekend, but USC banged out 18 hits just on Sunday, everybody taking a turn against the Bulldogs' flustered bullpen.

The smoke cleared, USC had the win and Tanner had an answer - this team can still win even against staggering circumstances. Yes, there are several games left, many on the road, some against very strong teams, but the one game showed him his ballclub can find a way.

"Sometimes during a season, you come to a fork in the road," Tanner said. "That's where we are. You go one way or the other. Today, we had every reason in the world not to be able to win, because we had some guys missing. We were thin. Our opening-day outfield, two were on the bench and one (Adam Matthews) was in Columbia.

"I'm really proud of this team, no doubt."

The Gamecocks have won throughout a near-crippling amount of injuries. Of the 33 players on the roster, 14 have missed at least some practice time due to injury, suspension or an allergic reaction to peanut oil. Bradley Jr. had an MRI performed on his ailing left wrist on Monday morning, with results expected on Monday evening; Marzilli's status going forward could be known tonight.

Former assistant coach Jim Toman brings his Liberty team to Carolina Stadium for a rare 1 p.m. game on Tuesday, and USC returned from Starkville in the beginning hours of Monday morning, when many had to be in class just a few ticks later. There may be a haggard, weary bunch of Gamecocks who come to the ballpark tomorrow.

But they'll be ready.

"I know I use the word challenge a lot, but it's going to be one," Tanner said. "We have to see where we are with Marzilli, where his situation is going to be, and Jackie, if it's a serious injury that's going to keep him out three or four weeks. We're still going to face the obstacles on Tuesday at one o'clock, when coach Toman's troops come to town. We've just got to keep battling."

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