The dimensions of Regions Park couldn't have been more opposite the Gamecocks style of play. Designed to hit the long ball, Ray Tanner's collection of brute strength-laden athletes were at a loss. At least six different fly ball outs would have been home runs in the snug Sarge Frye Field. Of the six "woulda' shoulda' coulda'" long balls, Justin Smoak hit three of them.
Though he never came out and said it, you could see the anguish. As if he were about to belt out the lyrics to Motley Crue's 80's hit song "Home Sweet Home."
His 2-for-17 SEC Tournament performance could have easily been a 5-for-17 performance with three home runs, six or seven runs batted in and a few runs scored. Losing their final game by one run, one can see the difference. Jess Todd, though extremely talented, is known to lose his cool after giving up a home run. One of Smoak's long outs came off Todd in the middle of his masterpiece. Who knows what would have happened had Smoak left the yard.
The Gamecocks make no excuses though. They were eliminated on the fourth day, held their chins up and had nothing but respectful things to say about their opponents. Underneath it all though, there was a perceived anguish.
With the Tournament in the past and the NCAA Regionals in Columbia, Smoak was all smiles before, during and after USC's first game. Surprising Wofford was on a roll after winning the SoCon Tournament as the ninth seed. Though the Gamecocks had outscored Wofford 21-1 in two games this season, there was a shared uneasiness amongst the 4800 in attendance. Wofford had the only offense in the country that had hit more home runs than the Gamecocks in 2007. They were on a roll and they were hungry with a confident vengeance.
In the top of the first inning Wofford would get on the board almost immediately with a well executed manufacturing of a run. After that the Gamecocks took over. Sure there were co-stars to Smoak's performance, but he would be the main attraction.
In the bottom of the first inning Smoak turned on an inside fastball and tied the score with one swing of the lumber. The ball sizzled through the thick Columbia heat until everyone lost track of it. Who knows where it landed, but it was a line drive that looked like a laser beam.
The next three times up the Terriers pitched around Smoak, walking him every time. In the bottom of the eighth, however, Wofford's Lance Player put a tad too much trust into his slider. Again Smoak turned on the pitch and sent it sizzling through the same summer humidity.
Those who made the trip to Birmingham could sense him humming "Home Sweet Home" as he circled the bases. Neither home run ever got more than thirty feet off the ground and both probably wound up across the train tracks beyond the right field wall.
At game's end, with a 9 – 1 victory under the belt, Smoak's numbers jumped off the stat sheet: 2-for-2, 2 HR, 3 RBI, 3 R, and 3 BB.
At the post game press conference, his confidence and subtle southern swagger had returned – a swagger that seemingly never took the bus ride to Birmingham. His flat, yet hysterical, answers to questions returned. In his unintentional Shaq O'Neal-like manner he answered questions thoroughly in less than a few words.
"On the first one I got a fastball in. On the second at bat I got a slider in, so, that was it," said Justin as he thoroughly described the moment.
When asked to elaborate, Justin got very technical about the two pitches he hit out, saying, "Got a couple pitches I could hit, and um, hit ‘em."
Asked if the walks get frustrating after a while, Justin described his emotions much deeper than anyone could have expected, "Enjoy getting' on base. I'm a good base runner, so..."
With Justin's answer apparently ending after the word ‘so,' Head Coach Ray Tanner raised his eyebrows to spark uncontrollable laughter throughout the room.
While single handedly deflating a balloon of confidence that brought Wofford to Columbia, he may have also inflated the lost confidence of himself and teammates. That's what All-Americans do when they have to; they take over.
Is Smoak a big enough star to carry his team to Omaha? We'll have to wait and see, but if he continues to launch moon shots and laser beams like he did in the opening contest, the next couple weekends could be fun.
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