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July 2, 2011

Starting Rotation Should Return in 2012

A year ago at this time, South Carolina was enjoying a national championship but was concerned about the future. The Gamecocks had stormed through the College World Series after an opening-game loss, which was grand, but looking ahead to 2011, there was a lot of worrying.

Specifically, who was going to pitch?

Blake Cooper, the dogged senior who had willed himself to one of the greatest single seasons in school history, was gone. Junior Sam Dyson was expected to accept the third draft position of his life, which he eventually did. Part-time third weekend starter Jay Brown was also out of eligibility; combined, there would be 47 starts missing from the Gamecocks' pitching staff.

One year later, the Gamecocks are again enjoying a national championship. The worrying is nowhere to be found, at least among the pitching staff.

Most of these guys should be coming back.

Although some players have draft decisions to ponder, it seems reasonable that pitchers who started 61 of USC's 69 games will return in 2012. Included in that group is the entire weekend rotation of Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas, meaning the Gamecocks should be on very solid ground once fall practice begins.

"Everything about it was perfect," Christian Walker said, "and I believe we can do it again next year."

Since Holmes (sophomore) and Koumas (freshman) were underclassmen, the Gamecocks knew they would return at least two pieces of the rotation. But when Roth won 14 of his 17 decisions and finished with an ERA of 1.06, it stood to reason some major-league team would take a chance on him.

One did, when Cleveland selected him in the 31st round. But Roth, who left on Friday for a six-week work-study in Alicante, Spain, went that low in part because he ignored the calls of scouts on draft day.

"I'll talk to them when I get back," Roth said after the national championship game. "Or my mom will talk to them. She negotiates contracts for a living."

Roth doesn't seem at all concerned about his draft status, or that interested, which means that the Indians likely won't try too hard to sign him. That returns 20 starts to the Gamecocks' rotation and a first-team All-American, who baffled batters and outsiders all season by becoming one of the country's best starters " after only two starts in his entire sophomore year.

Outside of the main three, redshirt sophomore Adam Westmoreland started nine games, and wasn't drafted. Patrick Sullivan started two games, and wasn't drafted. Rising senior Steven Neff started seven games, and was drafted, while Tyler Webb (five starts) and Bryan Harper (one start) were also drafted.

Neff is in a peculiar spot, having to decide if he wants to come back next year after having an up-and-down campaign. He was a weekend starter until experiencing tenderness in his throwing shoulder; it scratched him from a scheduled start at Florida, Koumas took over and that was that. Then Neff was needed in the outfield and performed well, belting five home runs and smoothing the rough edges left by the injury to Jackie Bradley Jr., but it left him with questions about his future.

If he does return, his starting spot seems to be gone, and a permanent spot in the outfield or at designated hitter seems iffy at best. He was drafted very low (41st round), but if he returns, has the same kind of season and is out of eligibility, he'll lose any leverage he has and may not even get a small signing bonus he's due now.

Harper seems to already be gone, tweeting that he couldn't wait to join his brother (Bryce Harper plays in the Washington organization, which also drafted Bryan) as soon as his pick was posted. Webb was drafted, but very low (48th round), and has two years of eligibility remaining instead of one. He loses nothing by coming back and performed very well out of the bullpen this season.

The Gamecocks will lose at least half of the most vital part of its bullpen, as senior John Taylor is gone, and closer Matt Price has to decide if he will accept a sixth-round pick or come back to school for another year. But the guys who set it up for Taylor and Price to finish seem to be coming back; it should be much simpler to find a new Taylor and potentially a new Price from the recruits coming in or the holdovers from last season.

It makes the view of a potential three-peat very realistic.

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