Since the 'Hoos and the Gamecocks squaring off tonight on ESPN with the chance to gain full control of the bracket in the College World Series, I exchanged some questions with SBNation's USC (East) blog Garnett and Black Attack. We got one of their writers, Eric Rogers, to answer those questions to try and give some insight into USC's baseball team from someone who had watched them this year. They shot some questions over to me about the 'Hoos which I answered here. Here are Eric's answers to my questions:
1) Obviously you guys are coming off of a huge last year after winning the National Championship and being so highly ranked coming into this year. Was it Omaha or bust at the beginning of this year?
That probably depends on which Gamecock fans you ask. Personally, my expectations weren't quite that high. After the 2010 National Championship we lost our entire weekend rotation and Whit Merrifield, a staple at the top of our lineup. Even after his super-human CWS performance, I was not yet sold on Michael Roth as a starter. There was just too much youth in our rotation for me to seriously expect that this team would be in Omaha in June. I thought we had a chance, but I certainly didn't expect it.
2) I've seen pictures of ya'lls stadium online and seen a few games on tv. Whose stadium can hold more fans: USC or the Braves?
Can, or does? Carolina Stadium holds around 9,000 fans when taking into account standing room and the "Bi-Lo Berm." Turner Field, I believe, holds somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000, although it sure doesn't seem like it most nights. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that USC has recorded higher attendance than the Braves on more than one occasion. We're very fortunate to have one of the nicest college baseball stadiums in the country, which has helped us recruit top-flight athletes over the last few years.
3) Jackie Bradley, Jr. had a hell of a year last year and topped it off in the CWS then had a great run with Team USA last summer. How big of a hit was it when he went down earlier this year? How big is it to have him back in the lineup at the biggest time of the year?
Losing JBJ hurt quite a bit. Even though he was batting only .259 at the time he went down, he was providing valuable protection at the top of the lineup for guys like Christian Walker and Scott Wingo. Also, he just has that "it factor." He knows how to come up big in tight situations. He's fundamentally strong both in the field and at the plate. The team struggled for a couple weeks after his injury while Coach Tanner tried different combinations of guys in the outfield. I think I read somewhere that Ray Tanner has started something like 40 different lineups this year.
What I don't think a lot of opposing fans realize is just how many injuries South Carolina has had over the course of this season. At one point all three of our opening day outfielders were sidelined with injuries, and our number four guy was suspended for a "college incident." Evan Marzilli had an irregular heartbeat one week, had a procedure done, and was playing three days later. Adam Matthews has been out on two separate occasions with a pulled hamstring. Brady Thomas is currently nursing a foot injury. Saturday starter Steven Neff pulled a muscle in his throwing shoulder mid-way through the season and was converted into a pretty damn good left fielder. Even now, Evan Marzilli is hampered by a pulled hamstring. And that's saying nothing of starting pitcher Nolan Belcher, who we lost just prior to the start of the season. There is a reason why this team's favorite press conference word is "battle."
4) It appears Colby Holmes is starting on the mound for you guys. What's the scouting report on him? He only went 4.1 against UCONN in the Supers. Any worries after that start?
Actually, 4.1 innings is just about the typical Colby Holmes start. He's had a couple gems where he went much longer, but whenever I see Colby Holmes getting the start, I really think of it more as a Colby Holmes/ John Taylor start. And that's not a knock on Holmes. It's just that we've played some really tough competition this year and Ray Tanner has the luxury of going to John Taylor at the first sign on trouble. Taylor is our middle reliever who would get my vote for MVP this year if I had one. He has made an appearance in 46 games so far this season - more than JBJ - and holds a .179 batting average against (lowest on the team) in 64.2 innings. I expect Colby Holmes to go 5, maybe 6, innings but no more. And I'm OK with that.
5) With the new bats this year I expected the SEC to change the way they played completely. Have the new bats had a big change on South Carolina baseball?
Over the last two years, really, USC has changed its style of play. I don't think the BBCOR bats had all that much to do with it. It was more a function of the type of hitters Carolina has on the roster. We used to play a style of ball very similar to the 1990s Braves - get a couple guys on and hope for a three-run homer. But beginning with last year we have morphed from a hitting team to a pitching team. Tanner's clubs have always been strong defensively, but now we're relying on pitching to carry us through tight games. Guys like Scott Wingo, Evan Marzilli, and JBJ will lay down bunts from time to time, but this team doesn't just give away outs. More often than not we're bunting for hits instead of just to move a guy from first base to second base.
6) Christian Walker is one talented baseball player (.357, 10 HRs, 61 R, 60 RBIs). What's the best facet of his game?
The kid is just a tough out. Every pitch he will make the pitcher work. He has the ability to spray the ball across the outfield or take one deep (and I mean deep) any time. He rarely misses an opportunity to take advantage of a mistake pitch.
7) I'll be honest, I have a sister at Clemson and my dad got his MBA there, but I hate Jack Leggett and that whole team in Anderson. How much do you guys despise that program and were you a little disappointed UCONN won that game on Monday against Clemson?
The rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson fans doesn't get as much play in the media as it deserves. Most of that is probably because the football and basketball programs have been largely irrelevant for the past 20 years. I could point you to the brawl in 2004, or the story of the Carolina fan that shot his Clemson friend after he refused to pay a $20 bet on the USC-CU football game, but I think I'll refer you to a post I penned prior to the Outback Bowl in 2010. I don't think I can do the rivalry justice in this space.
Of course in baseball there is a whole extra reason to hate Clemson: Jack Leggett. This year he called over some umpires to inspect JBJ's bat after he hit a home run in the first inning. Leggett accused the Gamecocks of heating our bats because they were in the sun. We weren't, and the game moved on without incident, but I think everyone was pretty peeved at what a classless move it was. I have friends at Georgia Tech and they feel the same way about Clemson. It seems nobody has good things to say about that man.
I'm not sad at all that we played UConn instead of Clemson. I think it was more embarrassing for them to lose in the fashion they did while not even making it out of their own regional. I also have no desire to play Clemson more than once a year in any sport. The rivalry feels like it has way too much actual hate in it (and no, I do not mean animosity), and I would prefer if both sides cooled their rhetoric a little bit. I can't even try to have a level-headed discussion at SB Nation's "Shakin' the Southland" without it turning into a name-calling quagmire.
8) Final question, and I want you to be honest, are you respecting UVa or are you overlooking them like I imagine some of your fanbase is because they're an ACC team and you guys come from the all-amazing SEC? (Had a guy argue with me half way through the year UVa didn't deserve to be #1 and USC was the only logical choice)
I can only speak for myself, but I absolutely respect UVa. Any team that has compiled a 55-10 record is legitimate #1 material. I've been following you guys all year, and for most of the time I would have voted you #1 myself. The only time I would have given USC the edge was right after we beat both Florida and Vanderbilt who were previously #1. But then we followed that up with an series loss to Ole Miss.
I buy into the SEC vs. ACC thing in football a bit, but in baseball I generally consider the two conferences equal. Certainly, I think UVa is capable of beating the Gamecocks. USC should be the underdog on Tuesday (and I'm not just saying that because that's where Gamecocks like to be).
Thanks for the great questions, and good luck to you all on Tuesday (but not too much).