It was so automatic.
Every time the bullpen gate opened in the ninth inning - shoot, sometimes in the seventh or eighth innings - and Matt Price jogged through it, South Carolina relaxed and the next batter shook his head. Price, like all closers, didn't have a 100 percent success rate, but he was pretty darned close to it.
When he was locked in on the mound, eyes glowering under a pulled-down cap brim, a carpet remnant of a beard covering the bottom half of his face, mouth set in a pinched scowl and that right arm dangling to his side, not many batters could help it. That overwhelming sense of dread and failure kept growing until the umpire's arm either signaled strike three or the ball skittered harmlessly into an infielder's mitt.
The Gamecocks had what every team desires - that one guy who comes in, gets three outs and can sometimes get six to nine to 12 outs for the victory. Some call it an over-rated position and wonder why a player that strictly throws heat and maybe one other pitch is so valued over a pitcher who throws seven or eight innings once per week, but there was no doubt how prized Price was to USC over the past two years.
It only took him two seasons - really, less than that, after he inherited the closer's role midway through his redshirt freshman year - to tie Rob Mosser for USC's career saves record (30, when it took Mosser three years to notch it). Price had the fastball, the slider and most of all, the mentality to be the lock-down pitcher, able to go day after day for however many pitches and innings it took to get the win.
After spurning the major leagues and a sixth-round draft selection, Price returned to USC and the rest of the SEC sighed. Preseason All-American starter Michael Roth and one of the best closers in the game, returning from a back-to-back national champion? Unfair.
Until coach Ray Tanner made the announcement.
"He's been so good for us, but we want to see if he can give us more than one or two innings per game," Tanner said after Price made his 2012 season at USC a definite. "If we can get six or seven out of him every week, we feel like we can be very strong again."
Many welcomed the switch. A few naturally wondered, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
Simple. Price deserved it, and the promise that he would get a chance to start figured into his decision to return to school. And to put it simply, Price is a starter - he began his career as one until a comebacker grounder broke his wrist, then logged 134 innings over the past two years as a closer. At the College World Series last year, Price hurled 5 2-3 innings and 87 pitches in one game to beat Virginia, then threw a combined 2 1-3 more innings in each win over Florida for the Gamecocks' second straight championship.
Price is a starter who was becoming a legendary closer. Might as well give him the chance to become a legend at the beginning of a ballgame instead of the end.
"Mentally, maybe a little bit, but it's not going to change who I am on the mound, mentally or physically," Price said, describing the different approach. "I just want to go out there and throw and do what I've always done."
That's been to get results. Price has looked exactly like himself in fall camp and preseason practice, with the one requisite bad outing coming two weeks ago. That day, Price was tagged for three home runs - but the rest of his combined outings have seen him at his usual. Confident, collected and heavily armed with four pitches instead of two, Price has made quick work of his opponents.
Now to do it against somebody that's not a teammate. Price will start on Saturday in Game 2 of the season-opening series hosting VMI, and get the chance to show he can be as good or better at the game's start than at the end.
"As a closer, you really only need two pitches, fastball and slider," Price said. "I can show off my pitches, different arm slots, things like that."
The talent is clearly there, but can Price harness the mastery of pacing himself throughout the game? Even in some of his long-relief stints, Price was throwing as hard as he could on every pitch - as a starter, he may have to check himself from throwing himself out too early. Roth threw 145 innings last year, but Roth doesn't throw that hard - he's a junk-baller who uses guile and location to get batters out, not eyebrow-burning gas.
Price is different from his mound mate, but sees the mentality as the same.
"As a closer, you've always got to have the mindset of what you're doing," Price said. "At the start, you've got to kind of pace yourself, can't let things get you awry. As a starter, I'll be who I've always been, and go after hitters. In high school and even my freshman year, I didn't close. Not like I lost the feel for it, just getting back to where I needed it to."
And if it doesn't work, he can always return to his previous role. Price can be right in either case.
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