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July 1, 2012

Gamecocks want to improve hitting in 2013



The meetings are over, the players departed for the minor leagues or to summer ball, and it's time to begin looking ahead. South Carolina baseball has become the pre-eminent program in the sport, following two national championships and a College World Series runner-up finish in the past three years, and the Gamecocks want to stay where they're perched.

Hard to improve on what they've done over the past three years, but if there is an area to focus on for the 2013 season, it comes down to one word.

Hitting.

"We did everything possible to win tonight except come up with a few more hits," coach Ray Tanner said following the 4-1 loss to Arizona that ended the season. "I knew going into this thing we were playing a team that had hit about .330 on the year. We were hitting probably under .270 going in."

The Gamecocks ended with a .265 team batting average, ranking 213th of 291 teams across the country. It should be noted that USC, even with that, won 49 games and finished second at the CWS.

But USC was right there to finish first, and didn't. The reason?

A .211 average in the CWS, which was heightened by seven runs scored in the Omaha opener against Florida. The Gamecocks hit .181 over their final six games in Omaha, including .145 and two runs in the championship series, and no one not named Christian Walker got within 50 points of hitting .300 in the CWS, much less rise above it like Walker did (eight hits in Omaha, .381 average).

When it was over, USC shrugged its shoulders and realized that it had been living on borrowed time throughout the postseason. "We haven't hit well all year," one staffer said, and everyone realized that the Gamecocks weren't a great hitting team, but had usually gotten a clutch hit or two per game in order to win. During the CWS, it was more clutch pitching that got them in position, and against Arizona in the finals, the only clutch hits came from the Wildcats' bats.

"We were only averaging three (runs) here in the College World Series. And we're playing in the championship series," Tanner said. "Eventually, that's going to get you. And in the end, if you had to put your finger on one thing, it's run output. We just didn't get enough runs on the board."

Looking ahead to next year, USC returns a substantial part of its lineup but is losing the one player (Walker) that could consistently hit and hit well. Due to the CWS affecting the team's season averages, he was the only player who hit .300 for the year.

There will be recruits or previous backups coming to fill in some of the missing spots, but Tanner will likely stick with five of the players who started most of the games this year to anchor the lineup. LB Dantzler will still wield a big bat at cleanup, and Tanner English proved himself to be a wonderful hitter, finishing at .298.

Other than those, it's trying to get consistency from everybody else.

English would be a prototype leadoff hitter if he would be more patient at the plate and earn more walks. While he hit over .300 for a majority of the year, his base-stealing talents weren't given a chance to shine because he could hardly ever start an inning with a hit. He struck out 71 times and only walked 14 times, leaving the leadoff duties to the departed Evan Marzilli and Joey Pankake.

Marzilli struck out 57 times but earned 30 walks. Still, Pankake took over the spot during the last half of the year and batted .264. His defense was marvelous in Omaha but he only hit .103, recording three hits in 29 at-bats with several balls given a ride, only to die in the cavernous reaches of TD Ameritrade Park.

Dantzler had a solid year but never quite mastered the dynamics of Carolina Stadium. While he belted 10 home runs, Dantzler also sent scores of balls into right-field foul territory, never quite getting the hang of waiting a split-second longer to turn the drives fair.

Grayson Greiner, hampered by injuries, has a good power stroke but only hit .222 for the year. Like Pankake and Dantzler, he was denied a productive CWS by continuously getting under pitches and flying out to the warning track.

Chase Vergason turned it on in the postseason, hitting above .400 once the Gamecocks began the NCAA Regionals, and became a .258 hitter for the year. USC will need that throughout 2013.

Tanner, as his usual, played several different designated hitters. Kyle Martin, one of them, will take over first base next year and be a mainstay in the lineup. Other DHs will follow, and USC has to replace Marzilli (English will move to center, opening a position in left field) and Adam Matthews.

The aggressive approach to the plate for the entire team likely won't change. Tanner and Chad Holbrook got the Gamecocks to this point by telling their players to swing early and often.

The Gamecocks just have to find a way to get it done. They want to keep the train rolling, and while their pitching will also take a hit with the departures of Michael Roth and Matt Price, they feel confident that the arms will be able to replicate what's been done before.

The hitting has to match it.

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