Originally created 06/17/04

Surgery didn't keep Pearce off diamond



COLUMBIA - Steve Pearce's brief bio in the South Carolina baseball media guide says his main hobby is playing video games.

The Gamecocks' first baseman wants to make an amendment to that.

"I love to eat," said Pearce, who lists prime rib as his favorite food. "Eating's something that's so fun."

That pastime was virtually snatched from him this year when his wisdom teeth began to grow in.

"Eating sucked," he said. "All I could handle was ice cream. It was awful."

Pearce said he lost about 20 pounds from a lack of appetite before his dentist told him it was time the teeth came out.

They were extracted March 30, just before South Carolina's series at Vanderbilt.

Soon after, he developed a condition called dry sockets, an infection that prolongs the healing process.

Teammate and roommate Jason Fletcher, who played with Pearce at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla., served as an impromptu nurse for his friend after surgery.

He knew his buddy was bad off when he walked into Pearce's room and saw his cheeks puffed out.

"I said, 'Dude, you need to change your gauze,' " Fletcher said. "He goes, 'I don't have any in.' His face was that swollen."

Despite the pain and swelling, Pearce missed no games and only one practice.

"I wanted to play," he said. "I didn't want to sit out. Sitting on the bench, watching those guys play, that would have been the hardest thing to do."

Playing and playing well are different things, though.

The sweet swing that Pearce displayed during the non-conference season of his first year as a Gamecock vanished with each pound dropped.

"That bat felt like a tree stump," he said. "It was hard to swing. I totally lost my groove."

A guy who hit 10 home runs before the start of the Southeastern Conference schedule hit only three during SEC play.

"Between every inning, I'd run up to the trainer and they'd give me some medicine for my teeth," he said. "It was a rough time."

Pearce hit his 12th home run of the season March 28 at Arkansas.

He didn't hit his 13th until May 8 at Auburn. Pearce said that's when he began to feel like himself again.

Since then, he hasn't just been the Pearce of old - he's been better, especially since the start of the NCAA Tournament.

Pearce went 6-for-10 with three home runs and nine RBI in the Gamecocks' Regional round. He added another homer in last week's Super Regional win over East Carolina.

Pearce is tied with Landon Powell for the team high in home runs (19).

His bat has more than made up for the struggles of South Carolina's 4 and 5 hitters, Powell and Brendan Winn, who have two hits and 17 strikeouts in the postseason.

"I knew it was just a matter of time before he started coming around and hitting again," said Fletcher, who still calls his friend underrated. "He got hot at the right time when we needed him to be."

Fletcher, a spot starter and reliever, has taken a few bows this season for helping South Carolina find Pearce.

After the Gamecocks signed him, Fletcher told recruiting coach Jim Toman about the shortstop from his junior college team.

Toman shrugged it off until John Michael Howell reneged on his scholarship and signed with Florida.

Then Toman's ears were perked to Pearce. He went to see him play again, and offered him a scholarship while he was there.

"Every time he hit a home run, I'd be like, 'See coach Toman, aren't you glad I got him here?' " Fletcher said. "He was like, 'Yeah, yeah.' "

Pearce is OK with it. He is on a team that goes into the College World Series as the No. 2 seed. And although he's yet to decide whether he's going to go, he was drafted in the 10th round this month by the Boston Red Sox.

"I just wanted to play. I wanted to make this lineup," Pearce said. "I knew that wasn't going to happen by walking or striking out. I knew I had to hit.

"This is a dream for me, the College World Series and everything. I'm very thankful."

Some wonder whether it's the baseball or the steaks that has Pearce gunned about Omaha.

Reach Travis Haney at (706) 823-3219 or travis.haney@augustachronicle.com.