Yardcocks Fall Baseball Wrapup

The Carolina baseball team wrapped up fall practice last weekend with the Garnet and Black World Series (won by the Black, for those scoring at home). The weekend also included an alumni game and tours of the new baseball stadium for alumni. Overlooking the new right field, Coach Ray Tanner met with the media recently to discuss practice and give a way-too-early preview of the 2009 Gamecocks.

"It's really been phenomenal for our players," Tanner said of the new stadium. "We had our alumni in last weekend. I did three tours myself of the stadium with some of our former players. It's a special situation. There's a lot of enthusiasm and extra energy. Our players are ecstatic about it. It's a state-of-the-art in college baseball."

It is much too early for Tanner to start nailing down a starting lineup. Indeed if everyone he suggested could be a starter took the field, South Carolina would be playing about 15 men. That being said, Tanner gave a position-by-position breakdown of the roster.

Catcher

"Justin Dalles is a right-right guy, and Brady Thomas, who hits left handed, seems to be our top two catchers. Kyle Enders is a solid guy, and he'll get some opportunities. I'm very happy with our catchers. There's a possibility one of those guys could DH at times."

First Base

"At first base we could have Parker Bangs or Jeffery Jones at first base because Parker pitches. That could change a little bit here or there because you can't play first base and then go into pitch because [or] you lose your DH when you do that so sometimes he'll DH. He's going to be in the lineup everyday as a hitter. [Jones] has got some power, he'll hit a few home runs, but he's a quality at bat guy, one of the best on the team. He'll take a walk. He forces a pitcher to make pitches."

Second Base

"Second base will probably be [Scott] Wingo or Rihn. Casey Rihn is a junior college player out of California. They were pretty even after fall practice."

Shortstop

"Bobby Haney sort of has the edge on the shortstop job. He did not have a productive fall offensively so that could change things up a little bit."

Third Base

"Probably Drew Crisp at third, although he could play somewhere else. We'll have to see how that develops in the early going. He's a proven player. Drew is a great defender, he's been able to play short, second, and third. He hit about .300 this fall. I'm happy with what he's done and he's going to be in there somewhere."

Outfield

"D-Mack [DeAngelo Mack] returns out in leftfield. Whit Merrifield will play in center. Jackie Bradley, the true freshman from Richmond, looks like he is going to be the starter in right. Adam Matthews had a productive fall at times at well and competed very well. He's a very special athlete. That seems to be the deal, although Merrifield did play in the infield a little bit this fall. We could make that move if we wanted to."

Pitchers

The pitching staff is, predictably, much less settled thanks to injury and inexperience.

"We have three [freshmen pitchers] that I thought would make an impact and they didn't disappoint," said Tanner. "Probably Nolan Belcher and Adam Westmoreland, if they continue to do well in the preseason, it looks like they're going to be rotation pitchers of some capacity. Matt Price, a young man from Sumter, was good as well. He'll probably be somewhere in the bullpen. We've still got Cooper up front, Sam Dyson up front. We look like we're going to be a little deeper on the mound."

Curtis Johnson, Jordan Costner, Jay Brown, and Brandon Miller have all returned from injury and were at full strength during the fall. Steven Neff also returned from injury, but was not as far along as the others.

"Steven Neff has been the slowest one to recover, but we're getting a lot of people back that we didn't have a year ago to go along with our new guys and some guys that did pitch," Tanner said. "We're pretty confident about our pitching staff. It's yet to be proven, but we think we'll be a little stingier than we were a year ago with giving up runs."

Healthy again, Johnson has designs on returning to his role as the Gamecocks' closer. That role is anything but a done deal though, as Tanner is excited about the amount of competition there is for the spot.

"I hope [Johnson can come back], but I hope he'll have some competition as well," he said. "Whether it's Parker Bangs or Matt Price, whoever it may be in that role, I hope it will be some competition for him to get his innings back."

Every year it seems there is one sophomore for whom the light comes on. Sometimes it takes a young player a year of seeing big time pitching, getting in the weight room, and receiving top notch coaching before he is ready to contribute in the SEC. It is too soon to know who will be that guy in 2009, but Tanner has his eye on a trio of young players.

"I think Whit's a better player," he said. "He was solid as a freshman, but he's better now. He's bigger, he's stronger, and he got the ball out of the park a little bit this fall. I think he's improved. I think D-Mack, he's developed into a pretty good player as well. Parker Bangs has made a jump."

This fall practice was the first chance the team had to work with new Associate Head Coach Chad Holbrook. Holbrook joined the Gamecocks from North Carolina this summer, replacing Monte Lee, who left to take over at College of Charleston. Holbrook is known as one of the best recruiters in the nation, but Tanner is more excited about what Holbrook can do for the offense. Even with all the home run hitters in the lineup last season, Carolina sometimes struggled to score runs.

"Coach Holbrook is not only a great recruiter, but he's also a great coach, and I think that maybe was lost along the way in his early career," Tanner raved. "He's a great offensive coach. He's spent a tremendous amount of time this fall emphasizing on base percentage. [Last year] we hit our home runs, but our on base percentage wasn't as good as it needed to be. It's one of the things that I asked him to put a great emphasis on that, he did that, and we are making some strides there. Hopefully we'll be better offensively. Ironically, we lost a lot of power from a year ago and we hit more home runs this fall than we did last fall. Only by one, but still it was a surprising number for us so we're happy about that."

The increased power was not a result of the new ballpark. Although the park is far from being finished, lacking seats and with lovely plastic wrap still on many of the railings, the Gamecocks do have an idea of how the park will play. Centerfield is something of a dead zone, where home runs go to die. The breeze generally flows out to right, but whenever the wind picks up, it blows in.

"There was never a home run hit between the two bullpen mounds [in the outfield]," Tanner said. "The ball did not go out in center, [but] it went out a little in right. I thought it played very, very similar to the Sarge with the exception of centerfield. It's hard to get a ball out of here in centerfield. We had about 10 balls hit the backdrop in practice and no homeruns, so it'll be a park that there will be some triples and you're going to need a centerfielder that can go get them."

Tanner also announced a change in the schedule. Instead of the opening series against Duquesne being a normal Friday to Sunday series, the first game will be the afternoon of Saturday February 21, and the final game will be Monday afternoon.

"Those decisions were made to accommodate our fans," Tanner explained. "First game on a Saturday will give people more opportunities and we're scheduled to play Arkansas in basketball that evening, so it will be a bit of a celebration day and it will give our fans more of an opportunity to be here."

*****

Before Tanner took questions, athletics director Eric Hyman talked about some changes and the progress being made in the construction of the new baseball stadium. First of all, naming rights have not yet been secured, so the structure will continue to be known as the "new baseball stadium" for the foreseeable future. Hyman said the University is continuing discussions to sell the naming rights, but the slumping economy has made the process difficult.

"That's just ongoing," he said. "It is a challenge."

The big announcement from Hyman was the addition of 1,000 seats to the original stadium design. The additional chair back seats will be located above the left field wall, in a location that was originally designated to hold temporary bleachers for big games. The additional seating brings seating capacity to 6,500 plus additional capacity, in the form of standing room and grassy areas that can bring total attendance to about 9,000.

"Because of such a great demand for baseball here at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, and in this state, and [because of] the job that Ray Tanner has done, we have put another permanent 1,000 seats in left field," said Hyman. "We a re really excited about that, and it is a reflection on the South Carolina program and the people around here."

The cost of adding the additional seating was not insignificant. Hyman estimated the change of plans cost around $130,000. However, he contended that the University is actually saving money in the long run.

"One of the reasons why we did it is because it's less expensive to do it now, as opposed to waiting," explained Hyman.

There is not yet a parking plan for the new stadium. There will be lots around the stadium with paid parking. A pair of lots behind the outfield will have 400 and 200 spaces. A lot on the opposite side of the stadium will have another 150 spaces. Agreements have been made with surrounding businesses to borrow spaces on game day that Hyman hopes will bring total spaces to almost 900. In order to handle the additional parking needed, the Gamecocks will allow fans to park for free at the Colonial Life Arena and take a seven minute shuttle ride over to the stadium, similar to the one provided for football games.

"Right now there is not a cost attached to it, but there may be a very, very minimal one if we do it," said Hyman. "It's not a moneymaking proposition. It would just be to be able to offset our costs."

Hyman admitted he anticipates there to be some problems with parking, traffic, and even some parts of the stadium itself early in the season. Carolina will be adding features designed to honor Gamecock baseball history, but those features are still being designed and will likely be added during the season.

"We will service our customers and we will make sure they are taken care of properly, but there's going to be some kinks," Hyman said. "We had a meeting yesterday about the stadium and there are some things that we are working on. Be patient with us. We've got some ideas and some things that I think are fantastic that may not be ready for the first game. We don't have a timeline set up, but I think we've got some fantastic concepts that I think that people in South Carolina will really enjoy."

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