Bradley, Jr.'s return provides boost

OMAHA, Neb. -- Last year's College World Series Most Outstanding Player Jackie Bradley, Jr. hasn't been named a starter yet for South Carolina's opener against Texas A&M. But he's getting closer.

When South Carolina recorded its final out against Connecticut last week, it guaranteed that last year's College World Series Most Outstanding player Jackie Bradley, Jr. was going to be in Omaha this week.

But it was never guaranteed that the South Carolina outfielder would actually see the field as the Gamecocks try to defend their title at the 2011 College World Series.

Bradley spent South Carolina's undefeated run through the regionals and super regionals watching from the stands at Carolina Stadium. The former All-SEC standout has been a major part of South Carolina's success over the last two and a half seasons but hasn't played since injuring his wrist diving for a fly ball April 23 at Mississippi State.

Bradley got good news from team doctors earlier this week, and Thursday night head coach Ray Tanner turned in his 27-man roster with Bradley's name on it.

The Prince George, Va. native could potentially provide a boost to the Gamecocks line-up if Tanner deems him healthy enough to actually hit. But he's already providing a boost to the Gamecocks' dugout.

"It just gives us a little more hop in our step," Tanner said of having the always optimistic Bradley back practicing. "You get him back and you have a little more moves you can make; you have another dimension."

Shortly after Bradley's injury, Tanner warned that as a draft-eligible junior, Bradley's South Carolina career could be over. But at the time, Bradley was adamant that he would find a way to get back on the field as a Gamecock.

And even after Bradley's good news earlier this week, Tanner said Bradley was much more likely to be used as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch-runner rather than as the Gamecocks' starting center fielder, the spot he commanded before the injury this year and last year after playing right field as a true freshman.

But after swinging against air Tuesday, hitting off a tee Wednesday and taking batting practice twice in Omaha -- once at Boys Town and once Friday at brand-new TD Ameritrade park -- Bradley's promise of returning may soon be fulfilled in a full capacity.

Bradley says he feels "a whole lot more" optimistic than he did just a few days ago.

"I didn't feel anything," he said of Thursday's pain-free swings. "It felt natural. [I'm] just working on a few things, trying to work on technique, just staying short. But overall it feels great."

So great that even Bradley's most cautious observer -- and ultimate decision-maker -- has begun to give in.

"I thought he looked great actually," Tanner said. "He wasn't tentative. He looks healthy. He looks good to go to me, the only thing that's missing is a lot of bats, a lot of repetition."

Those at-bats are something that Bradley can never get back. But he's not dwelling on that.

While Tanner hasn't been willing to go as far as to call Bradley a starter, a strange twist of fate may thrust Bradley back into Sunday's starting line-up.

Evan Marzilli, who started the season in left field, but has played well in center field in Bradley's absence, tweaked a hamstring injury that had bothered him earlier in the season.

Tanner said after Friday's practice that if it had been a game day, Marzilli couldn't have played.

"Marzilli is a little bit gimpy, so you lose one you get one [back]," he said hinting at Bradley's return.

"It feels amazing," Bradley said. "Especially from where I came from. I went from not doing anything for two months to jumping back into it yesterday. Overall, it feels pretty good and I'll do whatever I can to help out the team come Sunday, whatever it is."

Whatever that is, for last year's Most Outstanding Player, it isn't likely to involve just watching.

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