Yardcocks have high expectations for '08

The Carolina baseball team recently concluded its fall practice, and Coach Ray Tanner met with the media to discuss what he saw in practice, and what he expects to see next spring.

The 2008 baseball season does not start until February 22, so Tanner repeatedly cautioned that a lot could change. However, that did not stop him from saying that he thinks his team is one of the best in the nation.

"We've got a team that lineup-wise, position player-wise, defensively, we should be as good as anybody," said Tanner. "I don't want to put pressure on those guys, but that's about as good as it gets in college baseball."

Tanner made that declaration based off what he saw this fall. In addition to several highly touted newcomers, the Gamecocks return a group of infielders that may be the best in the nation. On top of their talent, the group also has a work ethic that should keep them playing at a high level.

"I felt like we had a really good fall practice," said Tanner. "I was especially proud of the older guys and the work ethic. [They] didn't really have to prove themselves much this fall. I felt like they worked hard and displayed the type of enthusiasm and work ethic that we needed to have because of the younger players in the program."

The infield will feature Justin Smoak at first base, Andrew Crisp at second, Reese Havens at shortstop, and James Darnell at third base. Both Smoak and Darnell were recently rated among the top 25 prospects for the 2008 MLB Draft. All four players are juniors, and Tanner is well aware of the interest the quartet is generating.

"Those guys can play," he smiled. "They're good defensively and they're good offensively. You can't put a team together much better than that. The bad news is none of them are seniors and we'll probably lose all of them. You've got to go out and play, you can't talk about it. You've got to prove it between the lines."

Smoak, Havens and Darnell all return from last season's infield, but Crisp will be making the move from centerfield to second base. Crisp played well in the outfield, but Tanner thinks he will be even better in the infield.

"We like having the more experienced, veteran guy in the infield, and I think Andrew is a true middle infielder," Tanner explained. "I think it takes a little pressure off of Whit [Merrifield] by keeping him in the outfield."

Merrifield played well enough in centerfield this fall to allow Crisp to move up, and he is one of two freshmen currently penciled into the starting lineup. The other is Justin Hopper who would likely start in left field, in addition to being a pitching prospect.

"We gave him an opportunity to see what he could do as a position player," said Tanner. "He was a pretty successful hitter at every level he's played at, and had a good fall for us offensively. He's a guy that, if we had to start today, would probably start in left field,[but] they've got to come back out in the preseason workouts in January and February and prove themselves all over again."

As usual, the Gamecocks feature a lineup littered with power hitters. They return 74 homeruns from last year, led by the talented infield and do-it-all Phil Disher. Disher's natural position is catcher, but he can also play left field or DH to make room for sophomore catcher Kyle Enders.

"I think we're going to hit some home runs," Tanner said. "I don't expect Darnell or Smoak to miss a beat. Disher is better than he was a year ago. He had the best fall of all the position players. His strikeouts were down tenfold. He had a bunch of them last year and he did not have a tendency to strike out this fall. He's probably got the most power on the team. I feel like we've got a balance. We've got some power guys from 2-6 and then we'll have some guys at the top and bottom who can run a little bit."

Of course, there is more to winning a baseball game than just hitting the ball. A pitching staff that was inconsistent at times last year will have to improve if the Gamecocks want to get back to Omaha.

"Pitching-wise, we've got to make some jumps," said Tanner. "I don't think it's a situation where those guys have to have an ERA under 2.00, hopefully we'll give them some run support, but we need for our pitching staff to elevate individually and as a group."

With an eye toward improving his pitching, Tanner opted to do something new this fall: nothing. Tanner rested most of his experienced pitchers, hoping that the rest now will result in better pitching in the spring. Practice starts in January, and the season runs until June. Immediately following the season, players head off to play summer ball. When that concludes, it is time for fall practice. Tanner thinks that sort off year-round activity takes its toll on his pitchers' arms, so he decided to try giving them a few months of rest, something he had never done before.

"We've got some guys that have been in the program that we expect to do good things for us that we didn't see," he said. "It gave the other guys opportunities to pitch in scrimmages a lot."

Despite not seeing most of the pitchers he expects to take the mound in the spring, Tanner has a pretty good idea of who his starting pitchers will be.

"If I had to do a five-man rotation today it would probably be Craig Thomas, Will Atwood, Mike Cisco, Parker Bangs, and Mike Cooper," he said.

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