USC Baseball: 2007 Season in Review

The South Carolina baseball program has reached the level where each year fans expect the Gamecocks to compete for the SEC title, a trip to the College World Series, and a shot at the national title. Roger Olivieri takes a look back at the 2007 season and reaches some conclusions that may surprise you.

Holy Bad News, Batman! POW! CRASH! BOOM!

It's February, 2007 and your third #1 recruiting class in the last four years is about to embark on quite a journey. A trip to Omaha in 2007 should be a foregone conclusion. Surely one of these gems will be up for a Golden Spikes award before it's all said and done. And maybe, just maybe, if things go right USC will win its first major National Title in the next four years. After all, these kids are the real deal.

Like the much ballyhooed final episode of The Soprano's, things suddenly turned to black. Everything possible fell apart faster than anyone would have expected.

Pitcher Sam Dyson, the 37th ranked prospect in the nation would miss the season due to surgery on his right labrum and rotator cuff.

By the beginning of March another Gamecock pitcher, Jay Brown, started feeling pains throughout his right arm. Brown, who had been named by Patrick Ebert of Perfect Game Baseball as one of the 12 impact sleepers in college baseball for the 2007 season, was done for the season.

When things seemed like they couldn't get any worse, they did. On March 19th two of the top freshmen in America were thrown off the team after a wild crime spree.

The top high school prospect in America who didn't go pro, Lonnie Chisenhall, had already started 19 of 20 games while hitting .313 with a home run and 13 RBI. His presence in the lineup was already being felt. But within a matter of hours, Chisenhall was banished from USC forever.

His partner in crime, RHP Nick Fuller, had made six hitless relief appearances and was the #4 ranked high school player in America. He, like Chisenhall, was kicked off the team and out of the University with one swift blow.

Not only had the Gamecocks lost four of the best newcomers in the nation, all four could have had an immediate impact in 2007. Even worse than that, the story on Chisenhall and Fuller became national news, thereby forcing loads of negative light on the program.

Gamecock Head Coach Ray Tanner elaborated in detail about the ramifications of the dismissals, "It hurt us personnel-wise. Chisenhall probably would have been in the line up every day. Not only was he an offensive guy, but he would have also pitched quite a bit in the second half of the season. Fuller certainly would have been a guy down the stretch that would have gotten some appearances as well. From a personnel stand point it changed our team. We took Lonnie into the season knowing that he would also give us depth in the infield, so we kinda' went thin in the infield most of the season."

Moving On…

World renowned child psychologist, Dr. Lee Salk once described the art of overcoming dire circumstances ever so elegantly, "When it gets dark enough you can only see the stars."

Surprisingly, the stars were everywhere, some expected and some not. The offense became one of the most potent in the nation, actually reaching the #1 ranking soon after the dismissals of Chisenhall and Fuller.

Could something like this crush a team? Coach Tanner began a monologue trying to capture the entire tidal wave of adversity – a wave they'd shred, rather than buckle beneath, "Sure, I was concerned. I mean that LSU series, we played the third game on that Sunday with everything looming. I don't think the players knew about it, but I did. I knew it was all going to transpire within the next 48 hours. But, (the team and I) met and we were very upfront about it. They were allowed to comment. It's something that happened and we needed to move forward."

"We dealt with it, we handled it and we moved on very quickly. For two to four days it was on the front burner. My goal was to get the players back to the business at hand. They were good. They were resilient. They moved forward."

"The incident was very difficult. I don't think I've felt those kinds of emotions for an extended period of time. It got me for a while. I still (struggle with it) at times."

Another newcomer, junior college transfer Travis Jones, would burst out on the scene shortly thereafter, while two sophomores, James Darnell and Justin Smoak, would solidify themselves as All-American candidates. A guy named Harley would shift into high gear at just the right time, while a super-soph named Crisp earned his spurs in 2006.

Times were dark around the middle of March, and like Salk said, that's when the stars shined brightest.

Gamecock Head Coach Ray Tanner reflected back on the wild season Wednesday, "I guess, to be honest, we're not playing (in Omaha) so we didn't (meet our expectations), but ya' know, even still some good things happened. We did play in a Super Regional for the seventh time out of eight years. Our consistency was there. We never lost more than two games in a row. But, if you're not still playing, it's hard to take."



James Darnell had a stellar sophomore season, batting a team leading .331 with 19 HR's and 63 RBI's.


Offense

Finding words to encompass the Yardcock offense is a daunting task. Though the leadoff spot was juggled a bit, the order in which it finally shook out was as intimidating as any in the country.

Who would want to face Travis Jones, James Darnell, Justin Smoak, and Phil Disher to start a game? The four had a combined 74 home runs and 266 runs batted in, not to mention a .323 batting average and an on base percentage of .418. These numbers aren't surprising when considering the plate discipline (BB/K) of the four combined is .858. The four players earned two first team All-SEC selections (Disher and Jones) and two second team honors (Darnell and Smoak).

The epitome of plate discipline comes in the form of sophomore third baseman Darnell who walked 51 times while only striking out 35 times. His plate discipline of 1.457 is almost unheard of. To put the statistic in perspective, there are only seven current major league players with a higher number. Among those seven are names like Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero, and Todd Helton.

As if the front four weren't enough, the number five hitter, Trent Kline, hit .317, with 6 HR and 42 RBI. He also led the team with 19 doubles on the season.

After those five, the pitcher had to contend with the clutch hitting of Harley Lail, the surprising pop of Andrew Crisp and the improving bat of Reese Havens.

There were highlights a plenty throughout the 2007 campaign. The pinnacle of which came in the last regular season game probably ever to be played at Sarge Frye Field. Trailing by eleven runs going to the bottom of the sixth, and eight by the eighth inning, the Gamecocks scored nine unanswered runs in the bottom of the inning to win the game 14-13. The game is widely considered the greatest comeback in USC history.

Other numbers are equally as staggering. For instance, the Gamecocks led the nation in HR with 113. Their opponents hit 38. They out-homered their opponents by 75 home runs. They almost doubled the RBI numbers of their opponents 487 to 278. The team batting average of .301 was 55 points higher than the .246 posted by opponents whom they outscored 520 to 304.

A team accused of living off the long ball, they stole more bases than their opponents 51 to 46. Is it because they ran more? No way, their 76.1% success rate stands only 1.8% below opponents.

FINAL GRADE: A+



Travis Jones and Trent Kline's production at the plate in 2007 were two very pleasant surprises for the Gamecocks.


Pitching

Tanner's assessment of the Super Regional loss to North Carolina was spoken softly, yet his ability to laugh with the media remained, "In hindsight, did we pitch good enough to be a World Series team? Probably not."

The word rotation was not only a word to describe the order in which starting pitchers take to the mound, it was also the way in which they experienced success. Never having two dominant starters at the same time, the Gamecocks always had one starter on a proverbial "hot streak." Harris Honeycutt, a Golden Spikes Award semi-finalist, was as dominant as anyone in the country in the first half of the season.

"We never had Honeycutt, Hempy, and Cisco together where it was a weekend thing," said Coach Tanner. About the same time Honeycutt began to tire, Arik Hempy had switched his comeback into high gear. All the while freshman RHP Blake Cooper was making quality starts consistently. When Hempy and Cooper began to regress as the summer wore on, Mike Cisco re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

One of the most unrealized statistics/achievements garnered by the Garnet & Black is their strikeouts per nine innings ratio. Whiffing 9.1 batters per nine innings, the Gamecock staff finished third nationally behind Vanderbilt (9.4) and Arizona (9.2) by only decimal points.

Harris Honeycutt started the season reeling off seven consecutive wins. Nearly untouchable, he'd been recognized in a variety of ways including. A semi-finalist for college baseball's prestigious Golden Spikes Award, he was also the focus of a Baseball America feature story.

Though he was roughed up during a miserable stretch after the seven wins, Harris remained poised through it all. After a win against Charlotte in the opening game of the Regional, Harris told of his odd preparation. Most starting pitchers won't talk to media on the day of a start; some will talk to no one. Others sit at their locker with earphones blaring. As for Harris, "I dunno', I hung around the house, played some guitar, played with the dog, spent some time with my wife."

While Harris was mowing down batters, Arik Hempy was running, strengthening and rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery. He'd come out of the gates a blaze though, only being held back by a cautious and caring Coach Tanner. Pitch counts were strictly enforced as patience became the dictator. A few innings against non-Conference foes were the house salad, five or six innings became the appetizer, before finally feasting on the main course – SEC competition. Like everyone though, he'd tire slightly before season's end.

Mike Cisco was battling troubles as Hempy was getting back in his grove. The troubles were significant enough to be removed from the rotation. He'd lost velocity on his pitches. He was leaving balls up and out over the plate. Quite frankly, the warrior started getting bombed by opposing hitters. Again though, Tanner would be patient, plug a hole and keep Cisco's health the primary concern. In time, he too would regain previous form and string together some impressive starts.

While all of this was going on, one thing remained constant. A freshman from Neeses – a boy who'd dreamed of being a Gamecock – stepped in after Jay Brown was officially done for the year.

Coach Tanner said it was Coach Calvi who kept telling him, "This guy will be good. He'll be good. Give him time."

RHP Blake Cooper was ringing up batters and accumulating wins as fast as anyone on the staff. This was no Chisenhall, Fuller or Dyson. This was a kid who Baseball America didn't even have ranked among the high school prospects, yet Calvi saw something.

Blake would also falter towards the end of the year, but all in all, he pitched more like a junior than a freshman.

GRADE: B+



Mike Cisco will return as a battle-tested weekend starter next season.


Bullpen

Alex Farrotto (45 K's/31 IP), Curtis Johnson (1-3, 3.38 ERA, 54 K's/42.2 IP) and Jeff Jeffords (6-1, 3.12 ERA, 60 K's/49 IP) made up a trio of nasty arms in the pen. More amazing was their strikeout to walk ratio of 159/52. None of those impressive numbers include Jordan Costner (3-0, 0.73 ERA), who may have been the best of all of them.

"Jordan (Costner) was a guy that never had any injuries. I mean he had pitched forever. I had told him," said Tanner, "I don't know exactly how you're gonna' pitch this year but you are going to lead this team in appearances.' He's so resilient. We missed him."

It was not flawless though, as the holes were much more evident. Wynn Pelzer had a disappointing season. His wildness was worse than ever as was his ERA. The young rifle armed man who was considered a savior in 2006, seemed a chink in the armor in 2007. Forest Beverly returned from injury but was never truly effective.

GRADE: B

Bench

The team's leading home run hitter from 2006 became a pinch hitter in 2007 – that's how stacked this team was. Robbie Grinestaff battled leg injuries all year but still found a way to come up big in some demanding pinch hit scenarios.

Kyle Enders, a true contact hitter and catcher of the future, improved greatly over the course of the season. He delivered only five hits in only twelve at-bats, but it seemed all five came when a hit is what the Gamecocks needed most. Coach Tanner is awfully high on Enders future behind the plate at USC.

Steven Reinhold, to steal an abused cliché, will soon have his picture plastered next to the word ‘gritty' in the dictionary. His attempt to catch a game winning home run in Florida encompassed everything Reinhold stands for - a team first player on the bench or between the lines. His body comes second behind getting the win. His views on the game and the team concept were evident when asked of his highlight moment at USC. When most would talk about his four hit game or the fearless attempt in Florida, Reinhold dismissed them all, "I think the Super –Regional my freshman year was the best. I came in as a pinch runner and stole a base. I wound up scoring and that run helped us go to Omaha."

GRADE: B+

In Conclusion

Considering what the young and talented group of Gamecocks were dealt throughout a season of non-stop turmoil, they over achieved. Many teams from Little League to the Major leagues would have folded by late March. Not the Yardcocks though. That's when they stood tall.

"We need to be a little more aggressive (with the freshmen). The upperclassmen will be assigned to young guys this year. I'm basically gonna' tell them, ‘He's your guy," said Coach Tanner, "and if he shows some immaturity issues the upper classman and I are going to talk."

Perhaps a great quote from the most recent installment of the Rocky saga describes this team best:

"The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!"

Needless to say, this group got up quickly and delivered plenty of blows before bowing out in Game Three of the Super Regional to an extremely talented North Carolina team. 2008 looks to be another fun installment.

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