South Carolina captured the SEC regular season title by beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, defying the pre-season predictions that had USC finishing third in the Eastern Division behind Vanderbilt and Florida, both of which were perceived as having more talent than the Gamecocks. How did it happen? Here are 10 reasons:
1. Ray Tanner: Several weeks ago, Evan Marzilli sat on a stage in front of the media and marveled at how nearly every decision Tanner made during the course of the game seemed to work. Not only does he possess a great baseball mind, Tanner knows how to relate to college players. That's easier said than do, I can assure you. He understands baseball can be a cruel game at times, and massages his players through slumps better than anybody. Marzilli started slowly, but has come on in the latter stages of the season because Tanner continued to show faith in him. If anybody other than Tanner wins SEC Coach of the Year honors, it will be highway robbery.
2. The Intangibles: Is there any team in the country with better leadership or greater mental toughness than the Gamecocks? I doubt it. The team chemistry is off the charts, and veterans like Scott Wingo, Adrian Morales and Michael Roth provide exemplary leadership by keeping everybody loose with their antics. We saw the 'refuse to lose' mentality on several occasions this season, especially when they faced crucial rubber games at Florida and against Vanderbilt. By winning those games, USC delivered a clear message - we're still the defending national champions.
Searching for a reason why USC is 9-3 in one-run games this season? The intangibles. No team compiles a stellar record like that in close games without something special going on. Five of the six contests against SEC East foes Florida and Vanderbilt were decided by two or less runs. USC was an admirable 3-2 in those games, a key reason the Gamecocks were able to win both series.
3. Rubber Game Riches: Related to No. 2 above is this statistic - USC was 6-1 in rubber games this season, including 3-1 on the road. They swept three series (UK, at UT, Aub), but the outcome of seven series boiled down to Game 3 and the Gamecocks usually came through in the clutch. It started in March when USC followed a rubber game win over Georgia at home with a memorable 4-3 victory at Florida the following weekend over the No. 1 ranked Gators. Another celebrated Game 3 occurred April 17 when the Gamecocks beat No. 1 Vanderbilt, 5-3, at Carolina Stadium. One week later, they smashed Miss. State, 13-4, in the rubber game, jumpstarting a five-game conference winning streak.
4. Fearless Young Pitchers: When the 2010 season started, Tanner installed lefthanders Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland into the weekend starting rotation, maintaining both southpaws had earned their spots with strong falls. But both faltered after a couple of weekends, opening the door to sophomore Colby Holmes, who made his first SEC start April 2 at Kentucky, and true freshman Forrest Koumas, who earned his stripes quickly with an outstanding performance at Florida on March in a 2-1 loss.
Despite their relative inexperience, both young hurlers excelled in the pressure cooker that is the SEC. Holmes, a weeknight starter last season, is 6-2 with a 3.46 ERA in 65.0 innings, second highest IP on the team behind Roth. In his final two starts when the SEC championship was on the line, Holmes allowed just two runs and 10 hits with 12 strikeouts in 15.1 IP. Koumas, who is 6-0 with a 3.05 ERA in 59.0 IP, did what he was asked to do - get into the sixth inning when the USC bullpen could take over. Here's the best part - both will return in 2012.
5. Overcoming Injuries: After outfield starters Jackie Bradley Jr. (wrist) and Adam Matthews (hamstring) suffered serious injuries that continue to keep both players on the shelf, few expected USC would be able to keep their head above water. But they did as a result of step-it-up performances by Evan Marzilli (moved to CF), Jake Williams, Robert Beary and Steven Neff. Only one of the three is hitting above .290 (Marzilli at .302), but they all contributed heavily down the stretch with clutch hit after clutch hit.
Beary started games at five different positions (C, 3B, LF, RF, DH) to stake his claim as USC's unsung hero for 2011. With Brady Thomas hampered by a foot injury, Beary has seen more playing time at catcher and he thrilled Gamecock fans by gunning down multiple Arkansas runners trying to steal second a couple of weekends ago. Of course, the biggest surprise might be Neff, who barely swung a bat for more than year until unloading against Arkansas with three homers in two days.
6. The Bullpen: Is there a better middle relief-closer combination in the country than John Taylor and Matt Price? Probably not. Taylor has been sensational, allowing just nine runs and 32 hits in 54.1 IP for an out-of-this world 1.16 ERA. He set the school record this past weekend for most appearances in a single season with 38 and we still have the post-season left. Price has emerged as one of college baseball's most dominant closers (56 K's in 41.2 IP). With 15 saves during the regular season, the Sumter, SC has a chance to make a run at the school record of 21 saves established by Blake Taylor in 2002.
But other relievers have done well too. Jose Mata is 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA in 28.2 IP, while Tyler Webb (3-1, 2.81 ERA in 32.0 IP) has shown he's a better hurler when he comes out the bullpen instead of starting. Bryan Harper (1-0, 4.50 ERA on 18.0 IP) has emerged as an effective situational lefthander despite struggling with his control at times, essentially filling the role Roth did last season until the celebrated performance against Clemson in Omaha.
7. Mooney Settles In: Peter Mooney was recruited for one purpose - take over for the sure-handed Bobby Haney at shortstop. An early flurry of errors in the field has some people wondering if it would work out. But Tanner continued to show faith in the JUCO transfer, and he has been richly rewarded over the second half of the season. Mooney has become one of the best defensive shortstops in the SEC and has teamed with Wingo to form possibly the best double play combination in the country.
Mooney finished the regular season with 11 errors, five more than Haney had all of last season, but only a fraction has come in the last two months. Like Haney, Mooney has a knack of making the unbelievable play look easy. And Mooney has provided a better bat too. Whereas Haney typically batted eighth and had a .263 average in 2010, Mooney has become a fixture in the leadoff spot and already has more hits (59), doubles (12) and RBI (27) than Haney did in eight more games last season.
8. Overcoming Early SEC Series Adversity: Three times this season Roth lost the opening game of a SEC series and each time the Gamecocks bounced back to win the final two games, a remarkable display of mental toughness and fortitude. The first occasion was the opening SEC series against Georgia when the Bulldogs prevailed, 4-2, in Game 1. But USC battled back with 2-1 (walk-off single by Wingo) and 8-3 wins in the final two games. Two weeks ago, Arkansas overcame Roth for a 6-2 victory in Game 1, extending USC's conference losing streak to three games. But the Gamecocks responded with impressive 6-5 (walk-off homer by Wingo) and 7-1 wins on Saturday and Sunday, with Neff showing the way at the plate with three HR.
It happened again this past weekend. With the SEC regular season title on the line, USC lost Game 1, 2-1, at Alabama. But Koumas and Holmes kept up with timely pitching performances in the 6-3 and 3-2 wins that earned USC the regular season title.
9. Christian Walker's Big Year: If Christian Walker isn't the top hitter in all of college baseball, he's certainly involved in the discussion. The Limerick, Pa. native is batting .358 with nine homers and 57 RBI, putting him in prime position to win the team triple crown in 2011. With Bradley, Jr. and Matthews both sidelined for at least the last month, Walker has stepped up in the middle of the order. He hasn't hit a homer in a while, but he's come up with countless clutch hits and carried at times carried the team offensively.
Sunday, Walker was named to the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, a well-deserved honor. Bradley Jr., played on the same team a year ago. Walker is second n the SEC in RBI, third in the league in hits (78), fourth in runs scored (53) and fifth in slugging percentage (.573), homers and total bases (125). Those numbers clearly place him in serious contention for SEC Player of the Year.
10. Road Success: USC is 31-4 at Carolina Stadium, which is impressive enough and a significant reason the Gamecocks are the No. 1 seed for the SEC Tournament. However, any SEC team is truly tested when they go on the road and few teams in the league can match USC's success in opposing ballparks: four victories in five conference series and a 10-5 SEC road mark. That's why they're regular season champs.
Here's the quirky stat of the season: USC won 66.7 percent of their SEC road games this season, but went only 2-3 against Palmetto State opponents in their ballparks, including losses at Clemson, Furman and The Citadel to start 0-3 before posting wins at College of Charleston and Wofford to finish with a .400 winning percentage in road games against SC schools. Clearly, USC stepped up when it matered most, and that's against SEC opponents.
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