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May 28, 2014

Five Keys to the Columbia Regional

I do not proclaim myself a baseball expert, but I have seen a lot of NCAA tournament baseball involving South Carolina, beginning with the first postseason I covered professionally, the 2000 season in which one of the greatest teams in school history scorched the teams in its regional before falling in heartbreaking fashion to Louisiana-Lafayette.

The lesson I took from that was that experience and confidence matter almost as much, at times, as talent. Louisiana-Lafayette that year was not afraid of the Gamecocks or their record, and the longer they hung around, the more confident they got.

I also learned that there's such a thing as a team being so talented that it blows opponents away with ease so often that it doesn't learn the invaluable skill of knowing how to win close, tight games. I think one has to look no further than Clemson football of late to see a perfect example of that or, in college baseball, Vanderbilt last year and Clemson in 2002 and 2010. On the opposite side, USC's 2002-2004 and 2010-2012 teams were the epitome of how far pure confidence, chemistry and grit can take a team and what a colossal advantage they are against the most talent-laden, MLB-rich rosters college baseball has to offer.

With the lessons of many a postseason in mind, let's look at the keys for the 2014 Columbia regional as they relate to this particular USC team, shall we? Let's do this!

GET RIGHT RIGHT NOW: Play time is over. The full-throttled nose-dive that was Hoover is done and in the past. The margin for error is zero.

No one high-fives each other in the offseason about 40 wins. It's a smashingly impressive statistic that USC has 15 consecutive 40-win seasons, it truly is, but around here it just isn't cause for exuberance on its own. What you do in the postseason is, which is how it's supposed to be for elite athletic programs in every sport. Only Omaha champions get parades; winning 40 games is what you're supposed to do.

The regular season, after all, is just the prelude to the NCAAs. It's where you iron out your lineup, your pitching staff and your team and hone it through the fire of league competition so when the postseason comes you can wield it with precision, carving up those teams unfortunate enough to draw you in the postseason without a shred of mercy.

This is South Carolina baseball, and people fear playing you. A mental toughness born of supreme self-confidence and magnificent team chemistry are the qualities that put USC at the top of college baseball, not rosters full of Major League talent. Embrace that fighting spirit, that refusal to lose no matter who is in the game or how bleak the situation. For that 2011 team, bases loaded with no out in the bottom of the ninth was no problem. Watch that video over again, and you can see their calmness, their confidence.

Own that. Show your opponents why every pitch, every play, you're better than them. Get right, right now, and play like the program you are.

WHO SHOULD PITCH FRIDAY? In my opinion, you throw your best pitcher in the opening game. The dustbin of teams that failed to make it to Omaha is littered with coaches who tried to outsmart their brackets. Holding one's ace until you face a better seed is a gamble that makes you look smart if it works and dumb if it doesn't. Why take that risk when you can just throw your best pitcher and (hopefully) ensure yourself a game in the winners bracket?

While I understand that Wil Crowe didn't get the chance to throw last week and you want to get him out there, number one, he'll get his chance this weekend, and number two, he's a freshman who has never been in a postseason game, and while he's thrown well in his last two starts he also gave up a grand slam to Georgia that led to the Gamecocks losing that series. There's no need to put that kind of opening-game NCAA pressure on him.

Let the other teams outsmart themselves trying to make something happen at a favored opponent's home field. When you're the favorite, as the Gamecocks are, just throw your best first, believe in your talent and live with the results. Leave the gambling to those with the weaker cards to play.

WHO'S HEALTHY? Who cares? Play baseball. If you're hurt, now's not the time to complain, now's the time to step in and deliver through it. For the Gamecocks, that means Max Schrock and Connor Bright, specifically, and on Monday USC coach Chad Holbrook said both would play this weekend. Put Schrock at DH, Bright in right, Gene Cone in left and go play baseball. That lineup, in my opiniongives USC the best chance to get its offensive mojo back, and boy, does it need it back.

I love seeing a lineup with Schrock hitting second and Kyle Martin third, leaving Grayson Greiner to do what he does in the cleanup position and give Joey Pankake a chance to hit fifth without the pressure of the three spot. Throw Bright in at No. 6, DC Arendas at No. 7 and whatever combo of Tanner English and Gene Cone you want at Nos 8 and 9 and I think you have the potency you're looking for.

And frankly, if I could write a USC lineup for one game - what a dream come true that would be! - I'd swap Marcus Mooney and Cone at the leadoff and No. 9 positions. I simply love what Gene Cone does at the plate every time. He works walks, he takes pitches and he plays the game of baseball the way it's supposed to be played. Mooney's a bit too unpredictable and streaky to be hitting first, which are the exact opposite qualities of Cone, who is predictable and consistent. Which set of qualities would you prefer at the top of your order?

It's time for those who have been resting up to lay it all on line. There's a whole offseason to heal.

PLAY ANGRY: USC's performance in Hoover was embarrassing. They made mistakes on the basepaths, at the plate, on the mound and in the field and looked nothing like the kind of team South Carolina is supposed to field. In short, they stunk up the joint.

So, get angry. Get mad. Use the anger of being ousted like a chump channel your focus, intensify it. Show the teams coming to Columbia that Hoover was not how the South Carolina program, of which these players are tremendously fortunate to be a part of, plays the game.

Show a renewed approach to baseball, to executing your will against competition that has no inkling of the tradition you've earned and excellence you've achieved. You're South Carolina, they're not. In Hoover, your butt was kicked so badly in the opener they stopped the game, you rolled over when Florida took a 3-2 lead in the third and you put no players on the all-tournament team. You played without guts or fire and not only earned no respect, you lost some nationally.

Get mad, bounce back and take it out on someone, starting right now. Don't flush it so much as let it fuel you the rest of the way. Make it a positive that serves you and play like you have a point to prove.

PLAY SMART The greatest success in Gamecock history has been defined by pitching and defense. The best teams won the most because they played smart - they made contact, put pressure on the defense, pitched to their strengths and took advantage of every opportunity. The teams that fell short - like last year's, which executed the fundamentals poorly in Chapel Hill at the plate and in the field - didn't.

Hit the ball up the middle rather than try to crush it. Use the opposite field. Hit behind the runners. Lay down a bunt successfully, and when you do, bunt it to the correct side. Make your opponent play a perfect game to beat you. Give nothing away.

Do the simple things well, one at-bat at a time, and great moments will come naturally. Try to force it, try to take it all upon yourself, and you'll fail because no one player wins a baseball game, though one player can lose it with a bad at-bat with runners in scoring position, trying to make an impossible defensive play or by trying to make a pitch a little too perfect.

Play smart, play to your strengths (pitching and defense), keep the game simple and you'll win. Leave everything on the field and believe in your ability and you'll find that the game will open up to you like it has to so many other successful South Carolina teams that all had in common a laser-like focus on playing the best baseball of anyone, anywhere, and a ferocious desire to prove it to anyone, anywhere who said otherwise.

Which kind of team will the 2014 Gamecocks be? One who is barely remembered, or one who is never forgotten? The road to immortality or oblivion begins Friday. Play time is over.



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