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May 3, 2011

Mooney Settles In As Gamecocks Surge

This is the guy they recruited.

South Carolina fans heard all about it through the offseason, as the Gamecocks lost the shortstop from a national championship team but were bringing in a guy who could potentially spearhead another title run. Bobby Haney left after two years of anchoring USC's middle infield but his replacement, Peter Mooney, would be the answer and do one better - while Haney was never a great hitter, Mooney most certainly was.

After eight errors in his first 20 games and a measly .244 batting average, the head-scratching was so severe that fingernails were being worn down across the state. A two-time national defensive player of the year in junior college was booting ground balls and making wild throws, plus looking overmatched at the plate.

"I was trying to do too much early in the season," the soft-spoken Mooney said. "Just let the game come to me."

He calmed down.

As a result, his rise into the stunning procession of shortstops under coach Ray Tanner is being completed.

After the awful start, the Gamecocks' latest defensive whiz has more than settled in. Mooney has only committed two errors in his last 23 games and has raised his average to .289 with 20 RBIs, taking over USC's leadoff spot as the Gamecocks struggle with an injury-riddled lineup.

He has also slipped into the double-play tandem that worked so marvelously, taking over for Haney and becoming Scott Wingo's fielding partner. Wingo, as comfortable as an old shoe with Haney for two seasons, had little to no adjustment when Mooney took over.

"He's great out there," Wingo recently said. "(Mooney) can get to all those ground balls and make the throws."

Mooney seems likely to add his name to the heralded list that was created when Tanner first arrived at USC, bringing talented shortstop Adam Everett with him. Since then, USC has cranked out shortstops like cars off the assembly line.

Mooney knew about the heritage when he came in, and said he was simply trying to play his game and let the comparisons be settled by others. If his current play keeps up, he'll be in the discussion for perhaps the No. 1 spot.

"That would be great, sure," he said. "But I can't really think about that right now."

The run started when the Gamecocks traveled to Florida on March 25, about to play a three-game series against the country's No. 1 team. The challenge to knock off a contender was great for all of the Gamecocks, but Mooney had something extra heaped onto that - knowing that more family and friends would be in the stands to watch and knowing his early season had been ragged, he knew there was no better time to break out.

Mooney had nine assists and a putout without an error over the three games, getting three hits and two RBIs while reaching base three more times. USC won the series 2-1, while Mooney looked exactly like the player he is during it.

The initial 20-game stretch looks more and more like a lengthy but understandable adjustment period. It also gets further and further away with every game.

Going forward, Mooney should stay in the leadoff role. Even without the injuries, Mooney earned it by getting five hits, getting on base another four times, hitting a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly and driving in two runs.

Then there's the field, where he continues to make on-target lightning-fast throws even if he's had to go into left field to get the ball. His instinctual run toward second base as Wingo caught a line drive on Sunday resulted in his glove catching the relay and his foot hitting the bag to preserve a game-ending double play.

"It's when we get excited," Mooney said. "We pray for double-play balls. We want to turn two when there's already two outs."

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