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April 27, 2011

COMMENTARY: Bradley Jr. Situation Not A Definite

"What you see,
Is what you get."
----------------- THE DRAMATICS

The uncertainty is what's so vexing about it. There are so many ways this situation can go, it's difficult to keep track.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is hurt, and there are only four weeks left in the regular season. After that is a week of SEC tournament play, then the really big games - the NCAA Regionals, Super Regionals and College World Series.

Second-ranked South Carolina is scrapping its way to wins right now, getting production from the flavor of the week in several spots due to several injuries. The Gamecocks have been backed into a corner with so many important and reliable players on the shelf, but thus far have come out swinging.

Ray Tanner didn't have to put it out in public. He could have kept it private. He could have said day-to-day for the next five weeks.

But he didn't, for one reason because he's honest, and for another because he doesn't want his ballclub thinking that it simply has to exist until its most dynamic player can return.

"Just try to keep it in the moment as much we can," Tanner said on Tuesday, after the Gamecocks beat Liberty 9-6. "That's basically my capacity."

Bradley Jr. wasn't hitting well when he injured the wrist, but the play where he hurt it defines what makes him so invaluable to this team. Mississippi State's C.T. Bradford led off the fifth inning of Game 2 with a flared double to right-center, Bradley Jr. was on the run from the crack of the bat, he dove for the ball, had it pop in his glove and out as he fell. Bradley Jr. rolled over on his gloved wrist and was trying to shake the numbness out until he was removed from the game in the seventh.

It's some kind of a tendon injury in the wrist, which began the questions. There are no certainties.

"Jackie, I think he may end up having to have surgery. And I'm just speculating right now, I'm just speculating," Tanner said. "It is unlikely he's going to be back without surgery."

The choice appears to be whether or not Bradley Jr. will have surgery on the wrist or attempt to let it heal enough for him to play. From what Tanner said, surgery and the required healing/rehabilitation time will knock the outfielder out for the season. The Gamecocks would really like to have him back for the postseason, leaving a five-week window for him to get better.

If he elects to stall the surgery and attempt to let it heal enough for him to play, there's the possibility it wouldn't get any better, or he'd injure it worse and then have to have the surgery with a much shorter window of recovery time.

Everyone realized coming into this year, with close to 100 percent certainty, that this was Bradley Jr.'s last season in college. He continues to be charted as a definite first-round projection in Major League Baseball's June draft, and this type of injury won't deter that. If it was a blown-out knee or a broken bone, perhaps it would; but this has a relatively short recovery time - which is probably the same amount of time left in the Gamecocks' season.

"It may be best to go ahead and do it and the best-case scenario for him would be two months," Tanner told GamecockCentral.com. "As a draft pick, he wouldn't play all summer anyway. They can negotiate until August."

Throwing another factor into the mix is Bradley Jr.'s history. He has been injured during all three of his years at USC, but in every one of them he has returned much, much earlier than first thought.

He missed one game earlier this season with a strained back muscle, suffered while lifting weights. Tanner didn't know how Bradley Jr. would recover after not being able to bend over, but the junior only missed a game.

As a freshman, Bradley Jr. had to go to the hospital during fall practice and get an extra rib removed, which was causing blood clots. Thought to perhaps be out for the season in 2009, Bradley Jr. started the season's first game and played in all 63 contests that year.

As a sophomore, he broke his right hamate bone, then had his left hand stepped on while attempting to steal second base and needed stitches. With an initial diagnosis of being out until SEC play in 2010, Bradley Jr. only missed one game to start the year, playing defense in the later innings of two other games during the first series. He missed two other games with the stitches in his left hand but played in the other 67.

Bradley Jr. has already proclaimed on his Twitter feed that he will overcome with help from his faith and his personal beliefs. And to his credit, that helped him return all those other times. The pervading feeling is that if anybody can return to the Gamecocks, it will be No. 19.

It's just he and everyone else will have to wait to see if he can do it one more time.

"I know that he doesn't want it to end this way," Tanner said.

The Gamecocks have turned to their upperclassmen to see them through - Adrian Morales, Brady Thomas, Michael Roth, Christian Walker despite his sophomore status. They will refuse to let USC's vision of another championship die.

USC is also equipped to handle the loss, with DeSean Anderson playing well in his first chances of replacing Bradley Jr. and Evan Marzilli having a good chance of being cleared to play this weekend. Whether or not he can play, Bradley Jr.'s infectious enthusiasm and spirit will be in the clubhouse and dugout and that will be a welcome boost.

Of course USC will miss Bradley Jr., but it won't use the loss as a crutch. The Gamecocks know as well as anybody else that it may be gloom-and-doom as far as what is likely, but they also know that Bradley Jr. will attack his recovery with the intensity of a wounded animal and could eventually recover in time to re-join the team.

Could, and may. Unlikely, but not definite.

I'm reminded of Ken Burns' marvelous "Baseball," where Bob Costas is discussing Kirk Gibson's miraculous pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. As he's in the Dodgers' dugout, he hears the injured Gibson taking his hacks in the adjacent batting cage before hitting coach Ben Hines walks past him, going to report to manager Tommy Lasorda.

"Like in a B movie … ," Costas says, "Hines passes Lasorda and says, 'He says he thinks he's got one good swing in him.'"

With as many movie moments as Bradley Jr. has supplied the Gamecocks with over the past three years, perhaps there will be another.

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