Youthful roster learning on the fly for USC

With just four SEC series remaining in the season, the South Carolina baseball team enters the home stretch with an even record at 9-9 and a chance to raise their stock in the NCAA Tournament standings. The Gamecocks head to Gainesville this weekend to take on Florida. The Gators sit one game up in the Eastern Division standings at 10-8 and No. 2 in the league just ahead of USC.

South Carolina outfielder Whit Merrifield took Wednesday night's loss to Clemson very personally. A dropped fly ball in the sixth inning resulted in the Tigers being able to break a scoreless tie, continue an inning that resulted in five runs and earn a 12-2 win over the Gamecocks.

But the sophomore from Advance, N.C. has all intentions of using what happened against Clemson as a springboard rather than an excuse.

"If anything it's going to fire us up going into the Florida series," Merrifield said after the game. "This is a team that wants to win and we know where we're at and we know where we want to be and we're going to do everything we can to get there and losing like this is going to do nothing but fire us up. We'll be ready to go this weekend I guarantee that."

That mindset is one well beyond the years of Merrifield and his maturity is something South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said made him a highly touted recruit out of high school two years ago.

"I just knew that the makeup, the character was going to be so hardened that I wanted him to be on my team. I've been ecstatic with what he's been able to do," Tanner said. "He's the epitome of what coaches like to have in their student athlete. He had the misfortune to drop a fly ball last night but you know if you can ever feel good about one of your players making a mistake it happened to me last night. As soon as he dropped the ball I'm like ‘He's our guy. He's been tremendous and sometimes things happen.' I'm ecstatic to have him on my team."

While the loss to the Tigers might have hurt the emotions, it certainly has not affected the attitude brought by the Gamecocks to the playing field. Merrifield is one of three underclassmen who started Wednesday night's game. Another four starters from that game are juniors who are in their first-year as players in the Carolina system.

Tanner has looked to a wide range of new faces on the USC roster to continue the success the team has known under his tenure. Freshmen Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Adam Matthews are two true freshman who have seen significant playing time this season. Bradley has started all but two games while Matthews has earned nine starts and played in 25 games. Though Matthews is still "learning to play" according to Tanner, he likes the skill set he brings to the field and could see more starts against Florida this weekend pending how the coach staff looks at the Gators' pitching rotation.

"What he brings is tremendous athleticism. He's probably as talented as any freshman you could have. You talk about the tools, the guy can run, he can throw, he can hit for power, he can hit. He's extremely talented and do a lot of things. He's still learning to play baseball," Tanner said. "I think he's done some good things for us. We'll go down and take a look at Florida's rotation and decide what we thinks our best lineup. But I'm sure he'll be in there at some point, if not starting."

Along with a handful of young position players, Tanner has also put some fresh faces on the mound. Three different true freshman have earned a start this season, including lefty Adam Westmoreland who earned his fifth start of the year against Clemson. Though he pitched a perfect game through the first five innings, Westmoreland was dealt the loss due to that five-run, fifth inning that sealed the win.

But the win-loss ratio doesn't concern Tanner as much as the quality of the outing does. "I was ecstatic with his start. There's no doubt about it. He had good stuff," Tanner said. "He did what he needed to do and that's encouraging for us in these last 14 or 15 games. We get a couple or three good outings from him and that will make a difference in the last few games."

Sophomore Sam Dyson and freshman Nolan Belcher will start on the hill for Friday and Saturday respectively for USC with junior Blake Cooper closing out the weekend on Sunday.

While younger players are being counted on down the stretch for Carolina, Tanner is hopeful that the big task will be a challenge they meet head on.

"You just hope that you hit the stride when it's most important. Everybody's good and certainly we could do well in Gainesville this weekend and Florida could do well against us. I've always said in most cases there's a very small distance between the top and the bottom. The variation is not that large," Tanner said. "We hope to play well enough that we get an opportunity to go compete is this league."

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