2010 Carolina Baseball Preview: Defense

No factor of the Yardcock game is ever as stable as the defense the USC coaching staff places on the field. Most every year, the players range in the high to mid .900s in fielding percentage. Last year, the Gamecocks' overall team fielding percentage was .974 and was second in the conference to LSU. They were also second in conference play with a .978 average, following Tennessee (.979).

With most of the starters returning and some good talent coming in, South Carolina will continue to provide some exciting defense in the field: turning the double play, gunning down a stolen base attempt and catching runners off the base.

Infield: With the return of Scott Wingo at second, Bobby Haney at shortstop and Kyle Enders at catcher, Carolina has a pretty strong nucleus in the infield. Should Nick Ebert be cleared to play, it gets stronger and more experienced. Haney and Ebert played in 63 games last year (Haney started in 63, Ebert 58), Haney had a .955 fielding average with Ebert at .990; Wingo played in 61 games (48 starts) and averaged a .969 fielding percentage.

Last year, Kyle Enders split time with Justin Dalles behind the plate; he played in 37 games and started in 18 games and had a perfect (1.00) fielding percentage. Enders' defense is just that good, and given the fact that he brings experience as a senior, he is your starter at the catcher position, with Brady Thomas getting some time at the position as well.

Enders worked hard last summer to improve his hitting; he knew an improvement in offensive numbers would atriculate into more starting time for him, and it looks like his hard work, program experience, and dedication has paid off. Make no mistake, he is a strong backstop behind home plate and is capable of calling pitches, as was noted by Coach Tanner during a recent press conference.

The tandem of Scott Wingo and Bobby Haney turning the double play was outstanding last year. Scott worked hard last summer to improve his offensive production and it showed during scrimmages in the fall and winter. He will have to maintain his edge during the season, and Adrian Morales is capable of similar heroics playing second base. Wingo brings the intangible element of experience and knowledge of what his coaches require in the way of production at the position, and he rarely disappoints them or his fans.

Bobby Haney is an incredible talent. His numbers continue to improve and his play at shortstop is sublime. I sincerely hope he has minimal issues with health this year because he is a major part of this team's overall defensive success. Anthony Iacomini is a talented freshman who would come in to play short and has enjoyed good scrimmages this fall and winter. He will grow into that position as time moves on but with recruitment the way it is (and will be), he will have to work to earn it down the road.

The questions concerning defensive play at 1st and 3rd continue to be answered. Christian Walker has made great strides in playing defense at third base and has worked really hard with the staff and Coach Tanner to secure his position at 3rd. It is the position he played at high school; the difference is the level of play in D-1 college baseball. I am always concerned when a true freshman is inserted into an infield position (freshman mistakes can and will happen), especially at third. But if that freshman has worked really hard at improving his play in the field (as Walker has) under the watchful eye of Coach Tanner, I become a little less concerned. Coach Tanner has alluded to the fact that Walker's efforts are close to what may be desired, but he "still has some work to do."

Should it be more of a task than he can handle, you could see Adrian Morales play the position. When Jackie Bradley returns to the lineup, Whit Merrifield could fill in. Christian's name has been mentioned for first base duties (he is listed on the 2010 Roster as playing 1B/3B), but with Ebert's situation, little time has been logged in at first base for the big freshman. Ebert has gotten most of the practice time at first (since he will return, he needs the practice) with others getting looks at first base.

First base appears to have a much more solid situation. Jeff Jones (played in 40 games with 20 starts) started at first last season, but hit a bit of a slump with offensive production - enter Nick Ebert in '09. However, Jones has been extremely productive with his offensive numbers in the off-season and has made a very positive impression on the staff to get the nod to start the 2010 season at first base. His perfect fielding percentage (1.00) from last year shows what he can do defensively; he just has to keep his offensive production numbers up. He will need to perform early in the season, and his play at first base could continue in tandem with Ebert's return, as it did last year. Others have had time in scrimmages at first base - Robert Beary, Michael Roth and Brison Celek.

Outfield: I was anticipating the play of Jackie Bradley, Jr. in centerfield. When I saw him play center in AAU ball a few years ago, he covered center better than anyone I had seen at the WWBA World Series Tournament. It was at that point I felt I was watching someone special, a very talented player. Someone who could play the position and free Merrifield up for other duties, making it easier to substitute for Merrifield's many outfield and infield talents. Fans will get to see this when Jackie returns to the line-up, but for now, positions are very good with Adam Matthews in right field, Merrifield in center and Robert Beary in left field.

Evan Marzilli, a center fielder (high school) from Cranston, RI, is a true freshman with talent in the outfield. He showcased it in off-season scrimmages with good breaking speed (ran relays for Bishop-Hendricken H.S. track) and can get under a ball hit to left in a hurry. He and Beary were in competition for left before Bradley, Jr.'s injury, but Beary's experiences as a hitter and defensive player (utility) on the junior college level separates the two for now. Beary was also considered for the first base spot to start winter scrimmages; but for now, he will fill the left field position very nicely based on present needs.

Solid baseball teams have the capability to rotate players to produce in key situations where one player may be more advantageous to use than another player. Or, players can be rotated when an immediate need arises - when a key injury occurs. The Gamecocks have been hampered by that on occasion through the years; but they are building depth with the best of in-conference teams.

In 2009, I remember LSU using Chad Jones (relief pitcher w/ 2.70 era) in the outfield to provide some additional defensive speed to accompany Jared Mitchell in the outfield. Jones finished the year on defense with a 1.00 fielding percentage and maintained a consistent bat (.343 BA) for the Tigers. They used Ryan Schimpf at second base (started 39 games), Left field (started 24 games), first base (started seven games) and designated hitter in two games.

Sean Ochinko, their listed catcher, started 57 games at first base and 6 games as catcher. Jared Mitchell (CWS MVP) started 42 games in right field, 21 in left, 2 in center and 1 game as their DH. DJ LeMahieu played 37 games as shortstop, 33 games at second base and 2 games as DH. There were other players for LSU with similar starts playing a defensive role which fit the needs of the team and provided the best opportunity to beat their opposition without sacrificing offensive production.

The Gamecocks are not there yet, but, I truly feel their roster is becoming just as diverse with talent and depth. That is what extends post season play and trips to Omaha.

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