Yardcocks ready for season opening series

The no. 2 ranked Gamecocks will start the 2008 baseball season in style this weekend when they play host to the 24th ranked East Carolina Pirates in a three game series. Read inside for a full preview of this weekend's season opening matchup.


Ray Tanner originally scheduled the Pirates because he wanted a marquee opponent to open the new stadium. However, delays have pushed the stadium opening back another season, so the two teams will instead open up the final season at Sarge Frye Field. Tanner admitted that scheduling such a formidable opponent instead of a weaker team is "probably not" a good idea, especially for a team with some question marks on opening day, but he still likes being thrown right into the fire.

"I do like starting the season this way," he said. "I think it's a great early match up for both of us."

With just one practice before the season starts, Tanner had filled a few of his lineup holes, while leaving some open. As planned, Mike Cisco will start Friday and Blake Cooper will start Saturday, both right-handers. After much deliberation, Tanner finally decided to go with junior lefty Craig Thomas on Sunday. He described the competition between Thomas and senior Nick Godwin as a "push," but opted to go with the lefty rather than start three consecutive right-handed pitchers.

"I told Coach Calvi on Sunday I wanted to sleep on it," said Tanner. "I slept on it. Then I told him Monday I wanted to sleep on it again. I'd like Craig Thomas to take advantage of his opportunity. He's a young man that's been in this program; he's been hurt some, but he's been waiting his turn to pitch. He's confident in his ability and now he's going to get it. Hopefully he'll be ready to step up."

In the field, second base and left field are still question marks due to injury. Andrew Crisp is still recovering from a back injury, and will be a game-time decision at second. If he cannot go, freshman Scott Wingo will get the start, and bat ninth in the order.

"Andrew has looked pretty good, but he's really only been working out for a week and a half," said Tanner. "He's not as physical as he needs to be yet. His conditioning is a little bit short. His skills are pretty good for a guy that hasn't worked out a lot. He's going to say he's ready to go and ready to play 75 games, but I've got to be careful there and give him some time; I don't think he can be a full-time player right now."

In left field, freshman Justin Hopper won the job in the fall, but has been slowed by a hamstring injury. In his place, sophomore DeAngelo Mack has excelled, to the point that if Hopper is anything less than 100%, Mack will get the nod. Tanner further said he may go back and forth between the two.

"[Hopper] has worked his way back and he looks close to 100%," he said. "He didn't get as many at bats as I wanted him to in the preseason. DeAngelo Mack has been his best since he's been here. He's a guy that from a coach's standpoint wasn't ready when he got here. He needed to gain strength, he needed to gain experience, and needed to get better. He's been playing pretty good in left field. He's using the left side of the field, which he hasn't been able to do earlier in his career. He gives us more depth than I thought we would have in the fall."

In part because of the uncertainty at those two positions, Tanner has not yet settled on a batting order, though the top of the order is pretty much set. Reese Havens will leadoff, followed by Whit Merrifield, James Darnell, Justin Smoak, and Phil Disher. Harley Lail will probably bat sixth, with Kyle Enders and whoever plays at second base and left field rounding out the order. Although injuries are making it harder to firm up the batting order, Tanner is not conceding the opening series just yet.

"It seems like we have more this time than ever," he admitted. "As I tell the players, you gotta win anyway. If you're hurt, if it's cold, if it's raining, you gotta win anyway. Those are just crutches. We can't go into battle with that kind of attitude. If somebody doesn't play, somebody has to step up."

In addition to Crisp and Hopper, pitchers Sam Dyson, Brandon Todd, Will Atwood, and Alex Farotto have all suffered offseason injuries, but are expected to return from injury this weekend. Parker Bangs missed some practice time with a death in the family, which knocked him out of contention for a starting role, but will be available in the bullpen. One player who will not be available this weekend, or anytime soon is Jordan Costner. The junior had surgery last spring and the doctors described his injury as "nasty."

"He just hasn't recovered as rapidly as maybe we had hoped," Tanner said. "There hasn't been a guy that works harder in rehab than he does. I think we'll get him back, but it may be midseason before he's 100%."

Friday night, the Gamecocks will be going up against senior right hander T.J. Hose. Hose had a 3.97 ERA in 2007, going 6-5. He was named First team All-Conference USA, and named to the Brooks Wallace Player-of-the-Year watch list.

"Every team wants to have an identity with a money pitcher on Friday night, and he's their guy," said Tanner. "He's been a starter since his freshman year at East Carolina, and he can pitch. He's beat a lot of good people."


Notes:

- Weather is a huge concern this weekend. Forecasts call for chilly temperatures and rain throughout the day Friday and into Saturday, possibly delaying the first game and forcing a double-header either Saturday or Sunday. On Thursday, Tanner said, "That's part of playing baseball so we'll see what happens."

- The baseball team will honor Tom Price with the initials "TP" stitched into the right side of their hats. Price will be honored briefly during the opener, and again with a presentation involving his family later in the season.

- ECU will start Seth Maness on Saturday and Justin Bristow on Sunday. It will be the first career start for the freshman Maness, and first start as a Pirate for junior Bristow. He started four games for Auburn before transferring to ECU this year.


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