Gamecocks Ready to Rumble In SEC Tourney
With seven of the eight coaches gathering for a Tuesday press conference, all seemed ready to get down to business. Starting pitchers expected to get drafted in the first round to members of the recently announced Team USA will throw, hit, dive, slide and homer their way to a conference crown.
"We're always excited about going to the SEC Tournament. It's so hard to get there in this day and age," said Gamecock Head Coach Ray Tanner, "With baseball the way it is in this league, we're delighted. It's hard to qualify. It takes almost all season, and there are some good baseball teams that won't even be there."
The outlook for the tournament prospects changed mightily Saturday afternoon. On the verge of dropping two out of three games to Georgia at Sarge Frye Field, most fans would have described this team as a quickly deflating balloon. However. in the course of one half of an inning, the deflating balloon blew up bigger than it had anytime before, with confident smiles decorating the faces of everyone.
Obviously, referring to the much talked about bottom of the eighth inning, also known as "The Comeback," the team was down 13-4, when suddenly this team of young "All Americans-to-be," crushed everything thrown at them, disposed of four Georgia pitchers (three of whom could not even record an out), and vaulted themselves back into the national spotlight.
The bus-ride to Hoover, Alabama will be much easier to handle as the young men will be in good spirits and ready to continue the wave of momentum that closed out the regular season at The Sarge.
"It changes things a lot when you win. It was great to see. Our entire bench was used... Kyle Enders had two big at-bats. It was certainly a gratifying win for us," said Tanner, "I've been preaching all year long that it's a humbling game. You're gonna' have some tough games, and you're gonna' have some good games."
Game two Wednesday afternoon pits the Gamecocks against Florida, a .500 team in and out of conference this season. Florida is familiar with the Gamecocks for all of the wrong reasons – it was a trip to Gainesville earlier in the year where second baseman Travis Jones went from new kid from a JUCO to First Team All-SEC second baseman. Jones was unconscious throughout, winning the National Player of the Week Award with five home runs in those three games.
Gamecock brass has decided to hand the ball to the hottest of hands heading into the tournament. Right after the Gamecocks completed their nine run eighth inning miracle, Harris Honeycutt strode in from the bullpen and looked like the Honeycutt who was 7-0 at one point this season. The sight of Harris combined with his dominating performance and obviously rejuvenated arm had several hundred in attendance choking back tears. Afterwards Honeycutt was still shaking as if he'd personally exorcised any inner-demons who'd been riding his mental state into the ground.
His smile, his delivery, and those three over-powering strikeouts confirmed that Honeycutt has his mojo back. It confirmed it to the fans, his teammates and especially his coaches enough to hand him the ball for game one.
"I'd never been down on Harris. The guy was remarkable in the first half," said Coach Tanner, "He wasn't as good in the second half, but he's still a quality pitcher. In the ninth inning on Saturday though, that was like some of those innings he had early in the season. Very impressive."
Florida's starter Wednesday will be Kyle Mullaney, who'd been relieving most of the year until receiving four late starts.
"He's pitched well for them," said Tanner, "He's a righty who has stepped up for the Gators, and they're going with their hottest arm available."
So What Happens Thursday?
No matter what the outcome, Coach Tanner has the Gamecocks throwing Arik Hempy on Thursday, a game that will pit them against either the hometown Alabama Crimson Tide or the only other seed ahead of Carolina not named Vanderbilt – the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Looking at the last four SEC tournaments, Tanner would hope his 2007 Gamecocks are more successful. In 2004, they won the tournament in grand fashion, but '03, '05, and '06 were three games and out.
"I hope (they're tournament ready). The thing about our club is that we pitch pretty good, we field pretty good. You know we're in the top seven or eight teams in the country. We've had a pretty balanced attack offensively, hit some home runs," says Tanner, "We wanna' go as deep as we can in this tournament. We wanna' win."
What are Their Chances?
Rest assured, there are as many coaches talking about Vanderbilt and how to contain them as there are the mighty Gamecock offense. Hitters one through four in the order are arguably the most devastating "front four" in the nation.
Travis Jones, a first team all SEC second baseman, leads off with numbers staggering for a second baseman - .321, 18 HR, 61 RBI, 12 steals.
James Darnell, a second team all SEC selection, might be the most devastating bat in the lineup as he's posted .337, 18 HR and 59 RBI.
Next is All American first baseman, Justin Smoak, whose mere presence in the batter's box has collapsed an opposing pitcher's confidence in the past. His regular season went to the tune of .318, 18 HR, and 65 RBI.
DH Phil Disher, named to the All SEC squad as their DH, finished the regular season with imposing numbers as well. A .343 batting average with 14 HR and 54 RBI would look much better if three of the most imposing hitter's in the country weren't hitting right before him.
If the Gamecock starters can bring to the table things they've done in the past, nothing more, this offense has the capability to cover the rest. In other words, South Carolina does not need a memorable or unlikely performance from anyone.
If Honeycutt can pitch like he already did seven times this season and Arik Hempy can pitch the way we all know he can – these Gamecocks will have a legitimate shot at winning the big prize on Sunday.
Obviously, there is more to it than that, as we've also seen the two faces of Mike Cisco. The talented sophomore's confidence is up though, and he's pitched himself through the rough patch. With arms like Jeffords and Ferratto in the bullpen to compensate late in games, the Gamecocks deserve to be seeded third and possibly higher.
Quotable Ray Tanner...
Q: What kind of importance do you place on that first game?
Tanner: Well, I'd take a loss in the first game if I knew I was gonna' win four or five in a row right after. Winning the first two games and getting Friday off is good. You'd like to do that.
Q: Did you get the pairing that you wanted?
Tanner: Who do you choose to play in the SEC? You can't pick anybody.
Q: Regardless of what happens in Hoover, what do you think your chances are for hosting at least the first round?
Tanner: I'd like to think that our RPI being somewhere in the top ten, already having won 40 games and playing in the SEC – I'd like to think we can host.
Q: Do you think Travis has handled his new-found fame pretty well?
Tanner: I think he has. He's always been a very humble young man. He's excited. He's a terrific young man.
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