Tanner Faces Opening Day Health Challenges

The recent spring-like weather in Columbia is fitting, as there is less than a week until the curtain rises on the 2008 Gamecocks baseball season. The biggest questions facing Ray Tanner all involve which players will be healthy on February 22.

Tanner knows which players he wants to use both in the field and on the mound, but when he recently met with the media, he admitted the biggest problem he faces is the lingering injuries that hamper several key contributors. That problem is particularly evident in the bullpen, where several of the pitchers expected to provide relief are currently on the shelf.

"Right now I don't have my choice because they're not all healthy," said Tanner. "I have those five guys in the middle to pick from, but right now I can't even pick from them because they're all not 100% health-wise. I have confidence in all those guys and if we use them properly, I think they can be effective. I've got to have them available."

The guys Tanner was referring to are Brandon Todd, Sam Dyson, Alex Farotto, Tyler Musselwhite, and Jordan Costner. Of that group, Tanner said only Farotto and Musselwhite are sure to be available. Tanner said Costner is "unlikely" to be available against East Carolina, "but he's getting closer." Dyson is still day-to-day as he rehabs an injury.

"He threw well his first time out, but didn't feel great his second time out," Tanner said. "It's almost like you take two steps forward and one step back, but you have to go through a little bit of the ups and downs in a rehab process."

Will Atwood could be available out of the bullpen to pitch one inning. Senior Nick Godwin could add to the bullpen depth, but he may be asked to be the third weekend starter after Mike Cisco and Blake Cooper. Junior Craig Thomas and freshman Parker Bangs are the other two candidates to start on the weekend.

"Nick Godwin has thrown the ball extremely well in the preseason," said Tanner. "Parker Bangs will get a look. Right now Craig Thomas might have an edge in getting that third spot, but we'll see."

Tanner also has yet to formally anoint a closer, although senior right hander Curtis Johnson is almost certain to fill that role. "Cujo" had three saves last season, and can pitch several innings.

"I don't know if we're going to go with him as a closer," Tanner said. "We may try to stretch him out a bit. We could pitch him in more than a one-inning stint."

Turning toward the field, the lineup is basically set, though not without a couple of injuries to complicate matters. Freshman Whit Merrifield will start in centerfield, with Harley Lail in right. Freshman Justin Hopper will play leftfield, but he is currently hampered with a hamstring injury. In his place, either DeAngelo Mack or Adam Crisp could start opening weekend. The infield is set with Justin Smoak at first, Reese Havens at short, and James Darnell at third. Andrew Crisp will play second base, but he is currently on the shelf recovering from a back injury. Freshman Scott Wingo will start in Crisp's place if he cannot go against East Carolina.

"Crisp practiced [Wednesday] for the first time," Tanner said. "It's a day-to-day thing with him because he's missed some time. We're going to take it slow with him. I can't tell you what his available would be for next weekend. It's too early to tell."

At catcher, senior Phil Disher returns, and sophomore Kyle Enders will split time behind the plate. New scheduling rules in place this season will force the Gamecocks to play five games a week, instead of four games the way they have in past years. That change is why Tanner wants to have two catchers ready to play.

"With our new schedule where we're going to have to play five games a week," he said, "it's almost impossible to think one guy can handle that kind of responsibility. Disher and Enders will be our catcher. Enders is a guy that has made a tremendous amount of progress for us."

Looking at the big picture, the Gamecocks were recently selected by coaches to finish behind Vanderbilt in the SEC East. When asked how he felt about being second, Tanner said he does not put much stock in the preseason rankings.

"In our league you can finish anywhere," he said. "It's a great conference, a lot of great teams, and you'd better play well all the time if you want to finish in the upper echelon in this league. We'd like to win them all, but certainly we'd like to finish as strong as we can in the league and especially in the East."

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