Major Change-Up in Pitching for 2009

The 2009 season will be one of transition for head coach Ray Tanner and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Not only will the Gamecocks finally move into their new multi-million dollar stadium adjacent the Congaree River, but they will do so without the majority of the players who led the Gamecocks to 127 victories in the last three years.

While the "big three" of first baseman Justin Smoak, shortstop Reese Havens and third baseman James Darnell, who were the face of the program over the last three seasons, will be the most talked about part of the team Tanner will have to replace, the pitching staff may look just as different next year as the Gamecocks' in-field.

Mike Cisco, who went 19-13 in 39 starts during his college career, will be the hardest person to replace due to his experience on the mound. The junior from Mount Pleasant has been in the weekend rotation since his freshman year and just signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the 36th round.

While Cisco was considered the ace of the staff early this year, and pitched as so, he struggled some down the stretch and was relegated to mostly bullpen duty during the latter part of the season.

Junior Will Atwood was the lone left-hander in the Gamecocks weekend rotation this season and will likely forgo his senior year and sign with the Washington Nationals who selected him in the 12th round. Much like Cisco, Atwood was great at times, but battled with inconsistency and may have spent most of his senior year coming out of the bullpen. Atwood went 5-4 on the season with a 5.25 ERA.

One of the biggest surprises this year was the play of senior Nick Godwin who was a weekday pitcher for much of the year, but pitched extremely well for the Gamecocks in SEC play during the last few weeks of the season. Godwin was arguably the teams' best pitcher late in the season and will surely be missed in the weekend rotation. The North Augusta native finished the year 7-3 with a 3.14 ERA.

The lone returner in the weekend rotation will be rising junior Blake Cooper who consistently gave the Gamecocks a chance to win on Sundays all year long. Cooper completed the year with a 3.94 ERA and 5-6 record. Cooper will more than likely keep his spot as the Gamecocks' Sunday starter and will bring experience to what will be a largely inexperienced group.

One of the most encouraging things about this year was the late-season surge of Sam Dyson who first saw action as an SEC starter against the LSU Tigers in the SEC tournament. With the Gamecocks needing a spark, Dyson turned in a dazzling, ace-type performance giving up no runs and just two hits in 6.1 innings of action.

Dyson backed up that outing with another solid one against N.C. State in the Raleigh Super Regional. Dyson missed all of his true freshman season nursing an arm injury, which led the staff to bring him along slowly this year. He should be able to build off of his late-season push and has the potential to be a dominant power-pitcher as the Gamecocks Friday ace. While Cisco was very good at times in the Friday role this year, for Dyson the sky is the limit in what he can accomplish in the college game.

With Dyson and Cooper likely penciled in at two of the three weekend starting spots one player the Gamecocks coaching staff would love to get completely healthy and start in the SEC is the oft-injured Jay Brown.

Brown had Friday-starter potential when he arrived on campus via Young Harris Junior College in 2007. He started four games in 2007, his first year with the club, and compiled a 2-0 record and 4.66 ERA to go along with 20 strikeouts, before suffering a season-ending injury. Brown was expected back in the rotation this year, but again went down with an injury keeping him out for the whole season.

While it is never a sure thing how a player will return from injury, especially when Brown has missed most of the last two seasons, the redshirt junior from Brunswick, Ga. could be just what the Gamecocks need this year to round out the weekend starters. According to sources close to the situation Brown's injury has healed well and at this time he projects to be the Saturday starter.

While having three right-handers in the weekend rotation is not ideal, the combination of Dyson, Brown and Cooper will give the Gamecocks the best chance to win if Brown can stay healthy.

Two other players who missed time due to injury this season are freshman left-handers Brandon Miller and Steven Neff. Miller and Neff were both players the coaching staff was counting on to contribute as freshman, according to Tanner, and have the talent to possibly start during the week this year.

Both pitchers put together incredible numbers in their final high school seasons. Miller was named a Collegiate Baseball High School All-American after allowing just 14 runs in 75.1 innings pitched, while striking out 130 hitters. The Greenwood native was also named the South Carolina AA Player of the Year in 2006 and 2007. Pitching in AAAA ball at Lancaster High in 2007 Neff was named the S.C. Gatorade Player of the Year after posting a 1.38 ERA in 76.1 innings.

While it is obvious Miller and Neff both have talent, even with the medical technology available today, for a player to return to full form the way Dyson did is not a sure thing. The coaching staff will likely bring both pitchers along slowly and see how their arms come along. Miller and Neff are both players with the talent to come along and possibly grab a starting stop in the weekday rotation as the year goes on.

The coaching staff's immediate plans are to keep the experienced players in the bullpen meaning Curtis Johnson, Parker Banks and Jordan Costner will be the first righty options from the pen, and Alex Farotto and Craig Thomas will be the first options from the left side, according to Tanner.

The bullpen's depth took a severe hit this year when the team's best long reliever, Johnson, was lost for the year midway through the season. Johnson will receive a medical waiver and return for his senior season. According to Tanner, Johnson is one of his favorite kids on the team to coach and he expects the Sumter native to be a senior leader next year for a team that will be led by mostly newcomers.

Parker Bangs came on strong as a freshman two-way player and could contribute with his arm or his bat. The multi-talented youngster compiled a 3-3 record and 4.61 ERA on the mound and hit .277 with 2 home runs and 6 RBIs.

While Tanner says he will keep all of his veterans in the bullpen it would be hard to imagine Thomas not getting a chance to show he can have a Godwin-type season and give the Gamecocks some stability during weekday starts. Playing five games a week, teams literally have to play up to their potential every time they take the field and Godwin was a big reason for the Gamecocks' success this year. Thomas was hardly consistent this year posting a 6.00 ERA in 27.0 innings, but this was the first year the Lexington native actually got to toe the mound. If Thomas could build off his experiences this year and take a solid step up, he could be the veteran weekday starter the staff is looking for.

With Tanner wanting to use his veterans out of the pen, that leaves a talented crop of newcomers to battle for starting weekday spots. Tanner mentions incoming freshmen Adam Westmoreland, Matt Price and Nolan Belcher, in that order, as guys who have the talent to come in and start as freshmen. While it is never ideal to have freshmen starting, USC will be looking to fill at least one weekday starting spot and maybe both, and this freshman class of pitchers may be the most talented Carolina has signed, in a long time.

The most talented of those three could be the 6'4", left-hander, Westmoreland, who helped lead Brookland-Cayce to the class AAA state title this year. Westmoreland posted a 9-1 record this year with an impressive 0.85 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 66 innings, according to the Bearcat's official website. Westmoreland was also named the 3A Area Player of the Year by The State newspaper.

The big lefty is in the Arik Hempy mold and is an intimidating force on the mound. While Westmoreland will obviously be brought along slowly by the coaching staff, as he progresses he could become the dominant left-hander the pitching staff has missed. Westmoreland was drafted in the 35th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it is widely believed that he wants to be a Gamecock and will decide to go to college.

Price is in a different mold than Westmoreland as a 6'1", 220-pound righty, but is still incredibly talented. Price finished his senior season with a 7-4 record and an ERA below 0.40 according to The State. Price showed what he is capable of when he struck out 17 in a no-hitter at the 2007 World Bat Championships in Jupiter, Fla.

The most intriguing of the Gamecocks signees could be the Greenbrier (Ga.) left-hander, Belcher. At 5'7", Belcher is not what you expect from a pitcher who lost a total of one game during his entire high school career. Belcher does not throw like a pitcher his size as he constantly hits 90 mph with his fastball and led Greenbrier to two 4A titles in 2006 and 2007, according to WRDW News in Augusta. Belcher has been compared to a smaller, left-handed Greg Maddux on the mound.

North Augusta star Marty Gantt has a minor injury to his throwing arm and that might be why Tanner didn't mention the 6' left-hander. In an impressive junior season Gantt put up a 1.33 ERA and struck out 161 batters which led him to become the first junior to be named South Carolina's "Mr. Baseball." Gantt followed that up with a big-time senior season posting an equally-impressive 1.44 ERA, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

Left-hander Grimes Medlin is a big-time pitcher from Young Harris Junior College who Tanner mentioned should start out in the bullpen, though if he comes in and impresses he could also compete for a weekday job. You never really know what you're going to get with a JUCO pitcher, so Medlin could be a big contributor or barely pitch next year. Medlin had a 2.40 ERA and won 8 games while striking out 88 batters in 75 innings on his way to being named Georgia Junior College Athletic Association (GJCAA) second-team All-conference, according to the GJCAA official website.

Rising sophomore pitchers Will Casey (0-0, 7.04 ERA), Alex Burrell (0-0, 5.68 ERA), Justin Hopper (0-0, 5.06 ERA) and Keegan Linza (0-0, 3.18 ERA) will all get their chance to show the coaches they are ready to contribute, as well.

Contributions to this article were made by baseball expert Ryan Clary.

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