Originally created 06/18/04

Royal Flush

COLUMBIA - Chad Blackwell calls South Florida home. Billy Buckner is from Conyers, just outside of Atlanta. Matt Campbell grew up near Greenville, S.C.

Three distinctly different places. Three distinctly different people.

Yet all their paths led to the University of South Carolina. Now, if things go to plan, their roads will lead to Kansas City, Mo.

On June 6, the Gamecocks' aces became a Royal flush when Kansas City took Blackwell, Buckner and Campbell in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft.

Ironically, the trio was together at Campbell's house when the news came for each one - Campbell late in the first round, Buckner early in the second and Blackwell in the sixth.

"It just made it a hundred times better when we all went to the same place," Blackwell said.

Royals scouting director Deric Ladnier says, given that all the players sign as they're expected to, he believes they'll all begin their major-league ascent at short-season Class A Idaho Falls.

Sounds like a good place to have a friend, or two.

"We're definitely thrilled about that," Campbell said. "If you're going far away from home, it's kind of tough. This will make it easier. We're pretty good friends already; this won't hurt anything."

SOUTH CAROLINA LISTS closer Chad Blackwell at 162 pounds.

"More like 142," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said, "all wet."

Blackwell had teammates worried during a rain delay downpour at this past weekend's Super Regionals. They thought he might slip through a drain.

On Tuesday, when he was posing for a photo with a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, one Gamecock pointed out there wasn't too much difference in Blackwell and the kids' sizes. And he was right.

He may be lacking in stature, but not in stuff.

When Blackwell was in high school, he realized he would never become a behemoth on the mound. That's when he started tinkering with various arm angles from which to throw.

"I was only throwing 81, 82 miles an hour then," Blackwell said, "so I had to come up with something to get the hitters off balance."

He conjured up seven different delivery slots - from over the top to submarine to sidearm.

Even though his fastball gets in the lower 90s now, he still utilizes each of the angles.

"I can't even throw a fastball (sidearm) and know where it's going," Campbell said. "He has control with every different arm angle. That's pretty amazing.

"He's a filthy pitcher."

The variation is something that's extremely rare among pitchers of any level.

"It's usually standard you stay in one or the other," said Gamecocks pitching coach Jerry Meyers. "It's a little bit unusual. And that's really why we brought him in here."

After seeing him at Pensacola (Fla.) Community College last year, recruiting coach Jim Toman told Blackwell he wanted him to be the Gamecocks' new closer.

"He told me he wanted me to come break Blake Taylor's record," Blackwell said, referring to Taylor's season-high 21 saves in 2002.

Blackwell's still got time. Going into this weekend's College World Series, he has 19 saves, more than anyone in the country.

The Gamecocks' ordained class clown has seven saves and a win in his past eight appearances, dating back to the last weekend of the regular season.

Ladnier said he sees Blackwell as a two-inning setup man, not necessarily a closer. But he hasn't ruled out the possibility that he'll finish games out in the major leagues.

"You know what, big leaguers come in all different sized packages," Ladnier said. "Whatever it is that he's developed, it works for him.

"We're certainly not going to mess with him."

THE FIRST THING people notice about Billy Buckner isn't his overpowering fastball or his effective breaking ball.

It's his name. If you don't know, ask a Bostonian.

Buckner shares his name with baseball's most famous scapegoat, former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.

His egregious error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series paved the way for a rally by the New York Mets - and for heartache in Beantown.

So it's no real surprise that the Sox passed on Buckner - who was born three years after the ball went through his namesake's legs - in this year's draft.

"We said, 'Well, don't guess Boston will be taking him,' " Ladnier said. "It's certainly an odd coincidence."

So frustrated with the questions about his name while playing at Young Harris (Ga.) Community College, Buckner put out word to reporters and teammates that he would explode at the next mentioning.

It stopped after that.

He said in every pro scouting report he's seen, he has "no relation" in parentheses following his name.

Buckner was selected in the ninth round of the free agent draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

He contemplated making the junior college-to-majors jump, but thought better of it from a developmental standpoint.

Ladnier, whose employer took Buckner with the 55th overall pick, said that decision has paid off for him.

"He looks much more seasoned out there," Ladnier said. "It's easy to say now, but he did the right thing."

Buckner also had some good timing when it came to impressing the Royals.

Ladnier and area scout Spencer Graham were present when Buckner struck out 16 Clemson Tigers in a win on March 6.

"He could have gotten major-league hitters out that day," Ladnier said.

He added if Buckner can pitch off his fastball, mix in his "above-average" curve and refine his change-up, he'll be able to do so in Kauffman Stadium.

SCOUTS AND COACHES say they haven't seen a better curveball this season than the one from the left hand of Matt Campbell.

His grandfather will attest to that. Campbell threw him a doozy in making his college decision three years ago.

Campbell grew up a Clemson fan, just like his mother's father, Larry Gar.

Nearing the completion of his Hillcrest High career, Campbell weighed South Carolina and Clemson carefully.

Deciding his personality jived more with Tanner's, Campbell picked the Gamecocks.

That decision had Campbell feeling guilty and Gar - a card-carrying IPTAY member - fuming.

Gar's wife and Campbell's grandmother, Doris, said she was worried for her grandson's safety.

"I really was," she said. "He wanted to kill him."

Gar stopped well short of that, but he didn't speak to him for a month after offering an initial congratulatory phone call.

"I felt bad that he was disappointed," Campbell said, "but I had to do what was best for me."

Grandson knew best.

Campbell has been to three College World Series in three seasons. He's fine-tuned that breaking ball into one of the best around under Meyers' watch.

And the guy nicknamed Soup - after Campbell's brand of broth - is due at least a $1 million signing bonus for being a first-round draft pick.

"It's worked out," Campbell said.

Ladnier can see all three pro careers doing the same.

In fact, this weekend might not be the trio's last time pitching together in Omaha, Neb.

In addition to being home of the College World Series, it's the location of the Kansas City Royals' Triple-A farm club, the final prelude to the major leagues.

"Just think: a year, a year and a half from now, they might be pitching again for the (Omaha) Royals," Ladnier said. "And then, hopefully, ultimately for the big-league team three hours down the road."

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


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