Yardcocks open preseason practice

The 2008 baseball season officially got underway Friday when the team took part in the first practice of the spring.

What should have been a day of excitement took on a much more somber tone when it was learned shortly before practice that Tom Price, one of the biggest supporters of Gamecock baseball, had died Friday morning. Ray Tanner briefly considered canceling the practice, but decided "Tom wouldn't have that."

As always with the Gamecocks, expectations are high. Tanner expects to make it to the College World Series every year, and this year is no different. Almost to a man, the players described their goal as "Omaha."

"I think expectations are a great thing," Tanner said. "Players have them, fans have them. The names change, but we certainly don't want to change the consistency. We want to become a pretty good team as the year goes on and have a chance to play at the end of the year. I always say this: if you can get to the end of the year and you get hot at the right time, you can play a little bit longer."

In terms of getting hot at the right time, the Gamecocks have a pretty good track record. Carolina has reached the Super Regionals every year since 2000 except 2005, and made three straight appearances in the College World Series from 2002-2004. However, they have not been back since. Despite all the lofty accomplishments, there is a sense with this team that anything short of Omaha would be a letdown, especially since the entire starting infield of Justin Smoak, Andrew Crisp, Reese Havens, and James Darnell will probably be gone after the season.

"I don't think we have ever had a veteran infield like this, with so many guys and so many that are highly touted," said Tanner. "It's a very good infield and a very good offense. If you have good players and you have a good team, you're going to have players that are gone."

That infield will most likely be missing a member on opening day, however. Crisp suffered an injury in the offseason, and could miss the opener. If he is sidelined, freshman Scott Wingo will get the start at second base. Should that happen, Wingo would be one of three freshmen in the lineup, with left fielder Justin Hopper and centerfielder Whit Merrifield the others. Tanner tried to temper his expectations, but could not help but show how excited he is about Merrifield's potential.

"He brings a lot of energy," said Tanner. "He is a great baserunner. If he can stay in the lineup everyday I think he has a chance to lead this team in stolen bases. You hate to put too much pressure on a young player, but he is the kind of player who could be a Freshman All-American."

Being surrounded by so much veteran talent should take some of the pressure of Merrifield and Hopper. Tanner spoke glowingly about not only the talent his veterans possess, but also their leadership. He was especially complimentary of Havens, who is penciled in as the leadoff hitter.

"Reese Havens is one of the most respected players I've ever coached," Tanner said. "He's a guy that can run practice for you. I've never seen a player that gets as much respect from a team as he does."

Of course, so far all we have heard about are the position players. That is because the pitching staff carries a lot more uncertainty. Will Atwood is unlikely to pitch the first weekend. That leaves Mike Cisco as the likely opening day starter, with a lot of new faces in the bullpen.

"Our pitching staff has some depth," said Tanner. "We don't have the credentials that we do as position players. I have confidence in those guys and hope we'll get better as we go, but we have to win as we go. I hope you hear about Parker Bangs, a big right handed pitcher that had a good fall for us. Craig Thomas is a name that has surfaced a little bit from a pitching standpoint. I hope that he emerges."

The Gamecocks' first opponent is East Carolina, and even on the first day of practice, Tanner is already focused on the Pirates.

"There is no exhibition season," he said. "There is no non-conference play other than in words. They all count the same. East Carolina is a tremendous opening series for us. I'm sure it will be like a super-regional atmosphere come February 22."

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