Pitching at a premium for young Gamecocks

Change is never easy. And it certainly won't be for the defending national champion South Carolina Gamecocks as they look to change and rebuild their entire weekend rotation. Although they lost three big leaders and talented pitchers from last year's title run, head coach Ray Tanner said that he expects guys to step up and fill the void with some quality pitching of their own.

Blake Cooper. Sam Dyson. Jay Brown.

Those three names have meant a lot to South Carolina baseball over the past several years and all will have to be replaced this year as USC tries to make a return trip to Omaha and the College World Series.

Cooper and Dyson were key starters during last season's NCAA playoffs and in the CWS, with Cooper cementing himself as a legend with several gutty and dominant performances in Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. Brown also provided several key Sunday starts during the season, and was a respected leader throughout his years in Columbia.

"There's some questions, there's definitely some questions out front with the pitching staff," said Tanner. "When you lose 200-plus innings that we did out front with Dyson and Cooper and some innings that Jay Brown had, that's very, very important. We've got some guys that I think are capable, some guys with experience and some guys that were on the staff last year, but they've got to be better. They've got to be better now and we've got to find some guys to assume those innings. One of the things that helped us a season ago was the experience that we had and we weren't a great club all the time but we were a team with some perspective that I've mentioned in the past. And the maturity helped us a lot in some difficult situations. We never lost more than two games in a row, and I believe experience plays a big role in that. And we've got a lot of guys back. Certainly they've got the maturity to know that what happens in the past is in the past and now we've got to move forward."

But with those names in the past, Tanner will now look to remodeling his starting rotation, and Gamecock fans will already notice a striking difference when the team takes the field against Santa Clara on Friday afternoon as Tanner has set an all left-handed rotation for this weekend.

Beginning with CWS hero and former reliever Michael Roth, and continuing with sophomore Tyler Webb on Saturday and either sophomore Adam Westmoreland or junior Steven Neff on Sunday, these Gamecocks will face a tall task in living up to the success of their predecessors.

Although he is hopeful that his unusual starting lineup will give him an advantage, Tanner said he is looking for these pitchers to do the little things right to help the team succeed.

"Well I don't know that there's any advantage," said Tanner. "I like the fact that lefthanders seem to have more success when maybe your stuff is not as good as maybe a righthander. You can hold runners a little bit better in most cases. And one year we were in the College World Series, I believe 2003 with Bondurant, Campbell and Marchbanks, they were all lefties, so we'll see what happens."

Tanner also said that he hopes that his starters can eat innings, and that may be the biggest thing in replacing such seasoned veterans.

"I think we can pitch, although we have to prove up front that we have guys that can eat those innings for those guys that have departed. But I can't tell you right now who are going to be the two or three guys who eat the bulk of those innings on the weekend, it's just not clear at this point. I don't think that's necessarily a negative, I just don't think the question has been answered and some guys are going to get an opportunity to do that."

Luckily, Michael Roth and Tyler Webb were both able to get their fair share of experience last year. Roth was called on throughout the season and in the College World Series to move out of the bullpen and was masterful in two starts, leading USC to wins over Clemson and UCLA in the series clinching game. Webb spent some time as the Sunday starter early in the season, and was able to get some quality experience which will serve him well as his role expands this year.

"I think more than anything else Webb has pitched pretty well since he got here and his practice opportunities have been really good," said Tanner. "He could have pitched tomorrow; I think we went with Roth because he is an experienced guy. It's his third year in the program, he has been in some tough situations be it in relief or in a starting role and we just felt like as far as opening day excitement (and) extra energy that he would be the right guy to keep things in check tomorrow. His poise and composure are outstanding, so we felt that probably was the main reason to put him out front."

Last season it was obvious what the Gamecocks wanted to do on the mound with their starting pitching. Barring injury or a complete meltdown, there was going to be no change in the one-two punch that was Cooper and Dyson. While Coach Tanner and new pitching coach Jerry Meyers would love to have consistency as the main attribute of their starting pitchers, it is clear that if players don't perform, others will have their chance to shine.

"We've got a rotation for the weekend, but it's very probable, well maybe not probable, but it could happen that the guys who are starters this weekend may not be starters next weekend," said Tanner. "They're out there for a reason this weekend but there are some other guys that are capable and it's more about performance now to maintain your position. Blake Cooper a year ago was going to pitch, if he had two or three bad outings he was still going to get an opportunity. Some of these guys are not there. So if they're not really sharp and impressive, somebody else will get an opportunity."

South Carolina definitely faces high expectations from coaches and fans alike who no doubt anticipate a run at Omaha, but the defending NCAA champs once again find themselves picked to finish out of the top spot, this time at third behind Florida and Vanderbilt in the SEC Eastern Division. However, Coach Tanner said he understands that, as those teams return a key ingredient: experienced starting pitching.

"They put two teams ahead of us that have rotations back. Quality pitching out front and the experience position players. I'd like to finish better than that but I don't think that is any disrespect because those two teams you're talking about in Florida and Vanderbilt are very, very good and they do have quality pitching out front. The premium for pitching and defense in college baseball may be at an all time high. I just don't think there's going to be a lot of runs."

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