A season in review: The Gamecocks claim a second straight baseball national championship

"The winnars and still champeeens!"

With football season just around the corner, it's high time we here at Garnet and Back Attack put the finishing touches on our 2011 baseball season coverage. And what a season it was. This year your South Carolina Gamecocks strung together a remarkable series of victories en route to their second consecutive national title (as if you needed to be reminded). Perhaps even more than in 2010, the way in which this year's squad came together belied a true toughness of spirit and bond among the team members.

The Gamecocks may now lay claim to NCAA records for consecutive wins in the post seasons and consecutive wins in the College World Series. Holding these records is an impressive feat unto itself,  but the way in which this team achieved these milestones deserves some fleshing out. After winning a national title in 2010, USC lost its entire weekend rotation of Blake Cooper, Sam Dyson, and Jay Brown. Yet, in 2011 the Gamecocks posted 55 wins behind a rotation with limited starting experience that included a former set-up man in Michael Roth (14-3, 1.06 ERA), a true freshman in Forrest Koumas (6-1, 2.96 ERA), and a sophomore with no prior starting experience in Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69 ERA). Michael Roth looks like no-brainer all-SEC selection now, but don't forget that there was still doubt at the beginning of the season as to whether he could be a "number one" guy. During the season this team survived many injuries - most notably to starters Tyler Webb and Steven Neff. Let us not forget that Carolina also lost potential starter Nolan Blecher before the season even began to Tommy John's surgery and reliever Ethan Carter to a violation of team rules. Just about the only known pitching quantities coming into this season were relief pitcher John Taylor (8-1, 1.14 ERA) and closer Matt Price (20 SV, 1.83 ERA). Those two performed up to expectations, perhaps even exceeding them. John Taylor logged 50 appearances on his way to a school record. All Price did was tally 20 saves while being the second highest drafted Gamecock in the 2011 MLB draft.

This team endured its share of offensive injuries as well. The most famous was probably Jackie Bradley, Jr.'s fractured wrist sustained while diving for a fly ball mid-way through the season. The loss of Bradley's bat for roughly half the season hurt USC's lineup, but it also allowed the emergence of lesser known contributors like DeSean Anderson and Jake Williams. Anderson is no longer with the team, but he provided a valuable stop-gap while USC searched for a replacement in center field. It is also worth noting that at various points during the season USC lost four different outfielders for one reason or another. Jake Williams was suspended for the better part of two weeks due to what can only be described as a college indiscretion. Evan Marzilli was sidelined with an irregular heart beat, but ended up missing less time than the aforementioned Williams. Adams Matthews served two separate stints on the DL for a pulled hamstring.

And yet the 2011 Gamecocks buzzed through the regular and post season with few bumps along the way. Much of their success can be attributed to the team's strong infield presence. Christian Walker, Scott Wingo, Booby Haney Peter Mooney, and Adrian Morales were all staples in the lineup this year. Walker had a monster season in which he hit .358 and drove in 64 runs. He proved his toughness when he would not be denied the opportunity to play in his second CWS championship series by a fractured hamate bone. After some tape and a few pain killers, Walker took his usual spot in the order and led USC to a national title. Scott Wingo raised his batting average to .338 after hitting .247 in 2010. Wingo was also one half of USC's deadly double play combination that got the Carolina pitching staff out of more than a couple bases loaded jams. Meanwhile, Morales, Brady Thomas, and Robert Beary always seemed to come up with big hits when the 'Cocks needed them most. Beary, in particular, showed the kind of flexibility that kept this team running amidst a wave of injuries. He took over behind the plate for Brady Thomas for the majority of the post season after Thomas sustained a foot injury. Without Beary catching, Gamecock fans might not have witnessed the spectacular tag outs at the plate or strikes to second base that characterized this year's College World Series.

But you can't talk about this team without talking about the coaching staff. Coach Tanner earned his second straight Coach of the Year title - well-deserved I might add. Meanwhile, Pitching coach Jerry Myers filled in seamlessly for the departed Mark Calvi. One could see the influence of Chad Holbrook, too, in the players that filled in the roster. Without a doubt, I don't hesitate to say that South Carolina has the strongest coaching staff in the country, led by what very well might be the best head coach.

Coach Tanner may not be perfect, - Lord knows that his affinity for the bunt (some might say affliction) has received its share attention in this space - but I can't think of any one who implements the team concept better than Coach Tanner. Has any championship team ever sustained as many injuries as the Gamecocks did in 2011 and still prevailed? I would like to know. Tanner may be one heckuva coach on the field, but where his genius really shines is in his ability to mold young men into a cohesive unit away from it. When one looks at this team, one sees a group of young men that still embody the spirit of the student-athlete. This is Tanner's greatest accomplishment - the achievement of lofty goals without sacrificing the pillars of the collegiate experience. USC's baseball team boasts 16 players on the SEC Academic Honor Roll in the spring semester.

There is also a closeness among these players that is palpable even through the homogenizing filter of television. One gets the sense that these players battled to win a second championship not for themselves, but for each other. With that kind of solidarity, how could we have lost? Who would have picked against the South Carolina Gamecocks in early February? Perhaps old me would have. But old me didn't know. Old me was an observer, a realist, a coward. My fandom had endured so much hardship I built up callouses that made me immune to the indulgences of college athletics. I could no longer root without reason, cheer without intellectual certitude, nor release myself from anxious prediction. I had, in a sense, trapped myself in a fit of analysis while waiting for the other shoe to drop. I can tell you one thing; this team has changed the way I approach Carolina athletics. With last year's championship it felt as if we were breaking down a wall of emotion that we had been building up with bricks of "almosts," "what ifs," and the dreaded "wait 'till next years" for a century. This year. Well, this year feels like momentum. And as I sit here looking back on a 2011 season that was over too quickly, all I can say is: "I can't wait till next year."

 

Go 'Cocks!

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