Yardcocks 2007: Halfway to Omaha
So far, on April 12, 2007, they are about to take on the Auburn Tigers just before the mid-point of conference play. Currently ranked #4 by Baseball America, the Gamecocks have had their share of drama this year. Without beating the proverbial horse, they've had their share of theatrics to this point.
Coach Ray Tanner seems pleased thus far, "I'd like to be a couple games better than we are right now, but that's what this league does to you. You've got to try to hang in there and win these series at home and you gotta win on the road."
Considering the losses of Arik Hempy, Jay Brown, Forest Beverly, Lonnie Chisenhall, and the unexpected disappointment of Mike Cisco to name a few, the team should be pleased so far. Tanner agreed when contemplating unexpected events throughout the season, "Absolutely. If you had told me all those circumstances were gonna happen and (a 100% healthy) Hempy hadn't pitched either, but we'd still be in the hunt, I'd feel pretty good about it."
Tied for second in the East with #1 ranked Vanderbilt, most believe it's a matter of team before the two powerhouses overtake Florida. It's the Vanderbilt squad, in the East, that poses the biggest threat to the Gamecocks. Arkansas, in the West, looks to be strengthening their death grip as Nick Schmidt has been every bit as good as expected.
There's a trend here – one that falls on the oldest of holy baseball proverbs. "Pitching wins championships."
Vanderbilt, Arkansas and South Carolina all have one dominating common denominator – balanced team, a dominant starter and a deep pitching staff. Nick Schmidt of Arkansas, David Price of Vanderbilt and Harris Honeycutt of the Gamecocks share the lead singer roles for their respective rock n' roll bands. "Respected" may be an understatement and Tanner agrees passionately, "I really believe that the reason we are where we are right now is because of pitching staff and depth in the bullpen. You can only be good in this game if you pitch consistently."
The proof lies in the statistics. Not one USC pitcher is in the top ten in or out of conference in innings pitched, while David Price and Nick Schmidt are both in the top four. While numbers tell the tale, they can be misconstrued. There is no lack of stamina plaguing the Gamecock staff. This is by design, says Tanner, "I have to give (credit to) Coach Calvi when it comes to that category. He always talks about getting other guys ready and saving some innings for the second half of the season. That's been his mindset all along."
David Price has thrown four complete games while Nick Schmidt has thrown two. No Gamecock has thrown a complete game for the sake of keeping arms fresh throughout the long season. It's worked so far as South Carolina leads the league with a miniscule 2.83 ERA. Their 3:1 K:BB ratio is also impressive. Though they have no single pitcher in the SEC top five in strikeouts, they lead the nation with 9.7 punch-outs per contest.
More specifically, Harris Honeycutt's 1.43 ERA leads the league. His 1.01 WHIP (walks plus hits/ innings pitched), though it does not lead the league, is only percentage points away from the top spot. Will Atwood, who may be moved to the weekend rotation, has per inning numbers equally as impressive.
With Atwood establishing himself out of the pen and then stepping up to start in Florida, the Gamecocks starting pitching is becoming as daunting as their bullpen. The emergence of Blake Cooper, return of Arik Hempy, and success of Atwood combined with Honeycutt gives the Gamecocks a drool inducing problem – four quality starters.
With all of the quality arms toeing the rubber in the first innings, it's almost unfathomable to have no one in the top ten innings pitched. When you look to the pen though, the reasons are obvious. Jordan Costner, Jeff Jeffords and strikeout machine Alex Farotto have been nearly unhittable. Combined, they've allowed 0.86 base runners per inning. Look at the 4.28:1 K:BB ratio and the results are obvious.
Coach Calvi is rubbing off on Coach Tanner who says, "The day and age of complete games is almost extinct in college. It's a game of specialization now. You got hold guys, set up guys, closers, and the specialist. That's what this game has come to."
With this, Tanner credits the pitching as the main reason they've gotten where they are. "They've given us a chance to win, in my estimation, every game we've played this year with the exception of one."
In such a football enamored town, Tanner turned Spurrier when driving home the point, "It's like having a great defense in football. If you have a great defense, you're in (each game)."
One Trick Pony? No Way.
The problem other teams have with Carolina is suppressing their balance. This is no one trick pony. The offense leads the league in conference play with a .315 BA, .506 SLG%, 145 hits, 22 HR, and SB success rate.
The Bomb Squad of Justin Smoak, James Darnell, Phil Disher and Travis Jones put the Gamecocks far above anyone else in the conference in total home runs. Their 57 long balls as a team, puts them 10 above their closest competitor (Florida 47). Nationally, like last year, they are second behind (of all teams) Wofford. They are ninth in the country in scoring and slugging percentage.
The lineup is so frightening that even light hitting Reese Havens has a .351 OBP to make up for his .267 BA. Even more impressive for Havens is his RBI total. Other than Justin Smoak and James Darnell, Havens is within three RBI of anyone else on the team with 25.
When they do get on base, the efficiency is amazing. Though they rank nine out of twelve in stolen bases in conference play, they lead the league in stolen base efficiency. In twelve attempts, the Gamecocks have swiped eleven bags.
With National Player of the week, Travis Jones, only beginning to heat up – the prospects of this offense are downright terrifying. Like adding brass knuckles to Mike Tyson circa 1985, Robbie Grinestaff is just getting healthy. This is the same Grinestaff who tied for the team lead in home runs last season (17). A lingering hamstring injury has Grinestaff with only two home runs so far. Adding this invisible negative to the previously mentioned national home run ranking, one would have to assume they are on pace to finish the season as the most powerful line up in America.
Like former Atlanta Braves, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, once said, "Chicks dig the long ball."
The Cherry on the Cake
For those who believe defense, not pitching, is the best indicator of future winning percentage – you'll be pleased too. As if the incredible pitching and strong armed offense is not enough, the Gamecocks rank third (tied with East Carolina) in the nation in defense. A .978 fielding percentage puts them only two hundredths of a percent behind the leader – Creighton.
Travis Jones has misplayed two balls versus his 92 assists. Reese Havens has misplayed seven versus his 87. Add Justin Smoak's one error to 18 assists and the defense is as good as anyone in the nation with a legitimate shot at Omaha.
Things to Watch In the Second Half
The progress of Arik Hempy will prove huge as the season progresses, "His velocity is not where it was last year, but he's been between 88 and 90 in his rehab stints, which is pretty impressive. He's been in the low 90's a couple of times, so (he's) not that far off," said Tanner.
Robbie Grinestaff's hamstring could thrust the offense from "very good" to "spine-tingling." Coach Tanner says, "This is the best he's felt in a long time. He's a little more mobile now in left field. He could be a factor for us."
A Mike Cisco rebound would catapult the staff into the realm of invincible. Coach Tanner looks forward to it saying, "If Cisco gets rejuvenated after getting the rest... it makes us better."
Having played Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida already, the remaining SEC schedule poses opponents with a league record of 30–41–1. Provided this team continues to respect its opponents, they could come close to running the table in conference from here on out. Is running the table impossible? Almost, but winning each series from this point forward should be expected at the very least.
The remainder of the year should offer plenty of opportunity for this club. Aside from Tennessee in Knoxville May 11-13, the Yardcocks could dominate the last five weeks of the regular season. Vanderbilt still has to face Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida. Florida must still face Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Considering the circumstances thus far, Sarge Frye may have even bigger moments in store before the gates are locked for good.
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