Yardcocks excited to open stadium, '09 season

The Gamecocks will open the 2009 baseball season and brand new Carolina Stadium Saturday at 2:00 with game one of a three game series against Duquesne. The season opening contest is part of a day-night multi-sport double header with the basketball team, who hosts Arkansas Saturday night. The series with Duquesne will continue Sunday and Monday.

Several pregame events are scheduled to commemorate the opening of the new stadium. Commemorative coins will be handed out to the first 4,000 fans, and Darius Rucker will sing the national anthem. University President Dr. Harris Pastides and former coaches Bobby Richardson and June Raines will throw at the ceremonial first pitches.

"It's a festive atmosphere and a celebration of the culmination of this program and the players that have come through here, but we've still got to go out and play," said Ray Tanner. "We're actually moving up our pregame very early. I want to get my guys in, get them out, and get them back inside because we've got to play a game. It will be a challenge. It will certainly be difficult for me. I'll have to do a little bit of pacing tomorrow to make sure I'm where I need to be."

Talking to the players, there is a sense that they are not as excited about opening the new stadium as Tanner or the fans.

"We've been in the ballpark for a while now," shrugged pitcher Sam Dyson, who will get the start Saturday. "We're just ready to start the season and show everybody who we are and how we can play this year."

Dyson went 8-0 last season with a 4.09 ERA in mostly midweek starts as he recovered from injury. However, he can bring the heat, throwing up to 97 MPH, and late last season he was inserted into the weekend rotation.

"We brought him along slowly; we pitched him in the middle of the week […] and we built him up and we kind of turned him loose at the end of the year," Tanner said. "He didn't disappoint. He probably felt he was ready to go before we turned him loose last year, but he has shown signs of being a Friday night guy. Not a guy that pitches on Friday night, but a Friday night guy. He has electric stuff. For us to be the kind of team we want to be, we need Sam out front."

Tanner knows he is putting pressure on Dyson, but having to open the new ballpark is just adding extra pressure, right?

"If there is, I haven't felt it yet," Dyson said Friday. "Tonight I don't know how much sleep I'm going to get. There's obviously some pressure there."

South Carolina leads the all time series against Duquesne 16-0. The two teams met for a three game series last season. In that series, the Gamecocks outscored the Dukes 35-8, but the Dukes rebounded from those early struggles to have a solid season. Tanner is friends with Duquesne coach Mike Wilson, who has led the Pittsburgh school for the last 15 years.

"He likes playing in these type situations early in the year," Tanner said. "I think last year he played us, LSU and Florida State, and he went home and won ten in a row and finished [third] in the A-10. It's a team that's going to be very competitive and they're not going to be awed by any stretch of the imagination. They strap it on and they go play."

Dyson is a familiar face to Gamecock fans, but he is one of few. With Reese Havens, Justin Smoak, James Darnell, and Phil Disher gone, Carolina is going to have a different look this season. Those four rewrote the Gamecock record books and were a threat to go deep every at bat. Last year, Carolina never had to worry about playing small ball, but leading up to this season, Tanner made it a point of emphasis.

"We still think we have two or three guys in there who can drive balls, but we think we're going to be a little more adept at moving some runners and hitting and running," he said. "One of the things that I put on Coach [Chad] Holbrook when he got here was, you have to help us develop this part of our game. From an on base percentage standpoint and moving some runners from first to third, and he's done a great job of that."

If there is a surprise for the Gamecocks on opening weekend, it is probably freshman pitcher Nolan Belcher. Belcher is slated to start on Sunday, and if he does so, he will become the first freshman pitcher to ever start on opening weekend under Tanner. The Augusta native is small, listed at 5'8" and only 155 pounds.

"The guy's five-foot-whatever he says he is," Tanner joked. "I know I can post him up and I'm not that tall. He's won his entire life."

"It's definitely a great honor, said Belcher. "It's going to be really exciting to come out here and pitch in front of these great fans, and with this new stadium it's going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity."

In his high school career, Belcher won three state championships and had a 47-2 record.

"Belcher was good from the get go," said Tanner. "He made a statement that ‘I'm fine, I'm comfortable at this level, and I can win.' He pitched in the scrimmages and has done extremely well. I think he's ready to go."

Still, one has to wonder how Belcher responds when he steps on the mound in front thousands of fans in a brand new ballpark. He was asked Friday if he expected to feel any butterflies in his stomach on Sunday."

"There's butterflies right now," he laughed. "Obviously there's going to be enough pressure with the first weekend, new stadium, but it doesn't add too much pressure. I'll just go out there a do my best, try to get people out, and at the end of the day try to get the win."

Expectations for the Gamecocks are not what they were last year, when there was an attitude of "Omaha-or-bust" heading into the season. Players this year have much more tempered expectations. At the same time, nobody expects the season to end on May 16 against Georgia.

"We don't necessarily know who the guys are going to be, but we have expectations that we're going to have those guys and we have expectations that we're going to have a chance to play at the end of the year," said Tanner. "This team is going to be challenged. We've got some guys that are good players, [but] there's not a lot of experience. It may be [a growing process], but we've got to win while we're growing."

Starting Pitchers:

Game 1

USC: Sam Dyson (RHP, So.) 2008 Stats: 8-0, 4.09 ERA, 50.2 IP, 28 BB, 44 K

DUQ: Gary Pierpont (RHP, Sr.) 2008 Stats: 1-4, 5.98 ERA, 49.2 IP, 8 BB, 31 K

Game 2

USC: Nolan Belcher (LHP, Fr.) 2008 Stats: N/A

DUQ: Ryan Juran (RHP, Sr.) 2008 Stats: 7-7, 6.68 ERA, 91.2 IP, 41 BB, 42 K

Game 3

USC: Blake Cooper (RHP, Jr.) 2008 Stats: 5-6, 3.94 ERA, 93.2 IP, 23 BB, 59 K

DUQ: Paul Bugajski (RHP, Jr.) 2008 Stats: 5-4, 7.68 ERA, 82.0 IP, 37 BB, 47 K

or Johnny Elms (RHP, R-So.) 2008 Stats: N/A

Carolina lineup:

Catcher: Justin Dalles First base: Jeffrey Jones Second base: Scott Wingo Shortstop: Bobby Haney Third base: Andrew Crisp Left field: DeAngelo Mack Centerfield: Whit Merrifield Right field: Jackie Bradley, Jr. Designated hitter: Parker Bangs


- Pitchers Justin Hopper and Steven Neff will miss the opening series with injuries. Catcher Kyle Enders has a sprained knee, but could be available.

- The first game is sold out. Tickets remain for the other two contests.

- First pitch for Game 2 is scheduled for 2:00 on Sunday. Game 3 will start at noon on Monday.

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