SEC Baseball Preview: South Carolina

With five teams finishing last season ranked in the top 25, including three top 10 teams in Vanderbilt #6, Mississippi State #8 and USC #10 the league was as competitive as ever, and once again figures to make a major impact nationally during the 2008 season. With three Golden Spikes candidates on board, Ray Tanner is looking to take his South Carolina club back to Omaha this season.

For a second consecutive season the South Carolina Gamecocks fell one game short of Omaha at the hands of 2006 and 2007 runner-up North Carolina. An offensive juggernaut, South Carolina muscled its way through most of the season, until a delicate pitching staff and ill-timed defensive lapses became its undoing.

With 2008 on the horizon, Collegiate Baseball ranks the incoming recruiting class as the 18th best in the country. Though the pitching staff suffered key losses, the rehabilitation of Jay Brown and an emergence by Parker Bangs and Will Atwood should mesh nicely with Blake Cooper and Mike Cisco.

The offense lost a ton of talent when second baseman Travis Jones and catcher Trent Kline elected to forego senior seasons in favor of the professional ranks, but the Gamecocks recovered nicely by inserting veterans Andrew Crisp and Kyle Enders in their place. Crisp may provide as much of a shock to Gamecock Nation as Jones did a year ago when he hit .318, with 18 HR, 68 RBI and 13 steals.

The rest of the infield is nothing short of spectacular. Three juniors could easily be playing their final seasons in Columbia as first baseman Justin Smoak, third baseman James Darnell and shortstop Reese Havens all project to have their names called on draft day in May 2008.

The outfield will be an infusion of young talent mixed with 2007's pleasant surprise, right fielder Harley Lail. True freshman speedster Whit Merrifield should man centerfield. His explosive speed proved invaluable this fall. The left field job could come down to a traditional battle between boxer versus puncher. Lexington High School hitting machine Justin Hopper and Jose Rodriquez continue to battle. Don't be surprised to see All-SEC DH Phil Disher flash some occasional leftfield leather as well.

The new SEC scheduling format forces teams into five-man rotations for 2008. The Gamecocks are deep with potential starters while the bullpen looks formidable. With Cisco, Cooper, Brown, Bangs, and Atwood, the Gamecock staff is extremely talented, but even more brittle.

Possible closer Curtis Johnson plus Alex Farrotto, Jordan Costner, and Nick Godwin could turn into a solid bullpen.

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