The first order of business was the rotation. With two mid-week games this week and next and at least five capable starters, the Coach has some decisions to make. Freshman righty Blake Cooper has been more than solid in his Sunday starts. Sophomore lefty Will Atwood has been equally as impressive earning him some starts as well. Add to this an Arik Hempy return to the SEC that left Tanner ecstatic, Harris Honeycutt's dominance (minus one bad day against Auburn) and the human roller coaster Mike Cisco and one can see why Tanner has decisions ahead.
Tanner seemed pleased with the outing saying, "Hempy looked impressive. He came out in the first inning and was hitting 94 mph. He got more efficient as the game went on - just really impressive."
As it stands now, the probable weekly starters are Blake Cooper Tuesday against Wofford, possibly Mike Cisco Wednesday against Clemson, with Honeycutt, Hempy and Atwood taking on Ole Miss this weekend.
When asked why the decision was made to throw an ice cold Mike Cisco against their biggest rival, Tanner didn't so much as blink when answering, "He's a veteran guy who threw the ball well on Friday night. His results were not that good as far as his line score is concerned, but his arm speed was there and his velocity is back. It was more about where he was physically. Stuff-wise he was back."
The rotation of the rotation, though some would view it as a nice problem to have, is definitely something Coach Tanner would like to nail down, "The perfect scenario is when you know who your guys are and you just pencil them in."
Caption: Mike Cisco and the Gamecocks huddle up before their 3-2 home victory over Clemson on March 4.
The most serious of injuries involves the blood clot in JUCO transfer Jay Brown's right bicep. It looks as though the junior could undergo surgery as soon as this Wednesday when he meets with Dr. Gregory Pearl in Dallas, Texas. The same doctor who operated on veteran major league pitcher Kenny Rogers, Dr. Gregory Pearl is no stranger to such a procedure. It will, more than likely, end his season and Coach Tanner would then seek a medical red shirt for him. After already seeing Dr. James Andrews a few weeks ago, the consensus is that this is for the best.
"I think it's doubtful that he would return (this year). You never say never, but at this point I would not expect him to be back this year," said Tanner.
While Brown's injury is serious, 2006 team leader in home runs Robbie Grinestaff is battling that of the lingering variety. Being out of the line up this past Sunday scared some into thinking the hamstring was again tweaked, but Coach Tanner dispelled those rumors, "He's actually feeling better than he has in a long time. He hadn't been swinging the bat real well so I gave Cheyne (Hurst) a start."
Grinestaff's hamstring is not the cause for his recent 3-for-16 slide, according to Tanner. It's not bothering him at bat so much as it is hampering his ability to run both the bases and in the outfield.
The Offensive Explosion
Commenting on Travis Jones is getting somewhat boring and repetitive, I know, but one can not ignore what the hottest baseball player on any level in the country is doing. In the last 11 games Jones has an astounding 25 runs batted in.
A weird series, the Gamecocks spent most of Friday wondering when the beating was going to end. Saturday and Sunday were a complete reversal of fortune as the Cocks hit balls to every part of the park, including the opposite part of the fence.
"Friday was a weird game. Honeycutt had eight strikeouts in the first four innings. You feel pretty good about that, but he just had two bad pitches with the bases loaded that accounted for six runs."
Travis Jones, the latest winner of National Player of the Week Award, led the charge with two more home runs. James Darnell, Trent Kline and Justin Smoak continued to clobber the ball like they have all season while Harley Lail has emerged as a prototypical lead off man.
Tanner turned teacher for a moment, "Travis is a hard worker and he positioned himself for success. It doesn't guarantee that it's going to happen, but he positioned himself for it. If you don't put in the time and make the investment, there's a good chance it's not gonna' happen."
A surprising power surge can ruin a good hitter's swing. Often time's smaller players without the natural power to hit home runs will try to over swing or drop their bat in an effort to lift the ball. In Travis' case though, Tanner is confident he's just a strong kid for a second baseman who can run. "He's physical. He's good in the weight room. He knows what kind of player he is though. It's not going to change him."
Caption: Travis Jones chats with Trent Kline while waiting to bat against Eastern Michigan earlier this season.
The Conference Tournament
Coach Tanner is obviously against the format presently in place calling only eight teams to its tournament, "Who do you want to play (in this conference)? There's nobody. I mean, you only want to play a team with ten guys out with a three day virus. Everybody's good."
By far the most powerful conference in the country from top to bottom, there are negatives along with the positives. "The RPI is number one. There are a lot of pluses. The negative part is if you don't do well enough in your league, they leave you out at the end of the year. That's not a true indicator of who the best teams are."
Tanner continued to explain the failed attempts to get all twelve teams in the tournament. Three years in a row the coaches have voted to send all twelve teams to the SEC tournament and the Athletic Directors voted against it every time.
His disappointment obvious, Tanner said, "I don't even know if we'll ever go down that road again. I said this before and I'll say it again. If you have a SEC tournament, shouldn't the members of the SEC tournament be there?"
The Final Stretch
With three of their last five SEC series on the road, the Gamecocks will want to win those series at the very least. On the road in the SEC, like Tanner says, is tough no matter where you go. Mississippi and Alabama are both middle-of-the-pack Western teams. Ole Miss is ranked as high as #13 in the Collegiate Baseball Poll while Alabama, though not 7-8 in conference play is a respectable 22-15 overall.
After that it's a home series against the defending SEC Champion Kentucky Wildcats who have fallen victim to Tanner's concern's thus far. At 26-9-1 they are a very talented team, but their in conference record of 6-8-1 has them fighting for a tournament spot. Expect to see their very best when they get here.
Tennessee hosts the Gamecocks May 11-13. The Vols have some All American candidates of their own and are 5-1 when playing Eastern Division teams. With possibly the best catching prospect in the country calling the game, J.P. Arencibia and the Volunteers will not be cordial hosts.
The regular season winds down with a home series against Georgia. By far, the worst team in the SEC, Georgia should offer the Gamecocks a much needed rest. But one never knows. After all, it was just a few days ago everyone assumed Harris Honeycutt at home against the West's worst team (Auburn) was a shellacking in the making. Well, it was a shellacking alright. Honeycutt and the Gamecocks were dominated for nine innings.
Games against Wofford, Clemson, Davidson and The Citadel mixed in between don't offer much time to relax.
The road to Omaha is long and winding, but the Gamecocks have withstood thus far. Now is the time to punch the gas, avoid the barrage of pot holes and make their move. No matter what the outcome, Coach Ray Tanner seems determined to drive hard until they get there.
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