Gamecocks' new lineup is loaded with veterans

COLUMBIA --- South Carolina coach Ray Tanner enjoys teaching young players all about baseball during fall workouts. When the season starts, though, he'll sit them in the dugout and go with experience every time.


"When the bell rings," Tanner smiled, "I'd like to have 25 22-year-olds."

His latest group of Gamecocks, which began practice Friday, comes pretty close.

South Carolina has a starting lineup full of savvy, power and knowledge. From junior first baseman Justin Smoak through shortstop Reese Havens, third baseman James Darnell and catcher-designated hitter Phil Disher, the Gamecocks appear to have an offense ready to burst every game.

"We've got some players who've been out there two or three years," Tanner said. "You've got to win enough along the way."

That's usually not a problem for South Carolina.

The Gamecocks have reached the NCAA's super regional round seven of the past eight seasons, a run that includes three trips to the College World Series from 2002-04. These players mostly came in after that streak and, after losing the super regionals the past two years, are desperate to reach Omaha, Neb., this time around.

"We're definitely excited about the opportunity," Darnell said. "I think we've got so many good players on the team this year we're really looking forward to giving it a good run."

Smoak leads the attack. He batted .315 a year ago with 22 home runs and 72 RBI and was rated the country's third-best pro prospect by Baseball America . Havens, the junior shortstop, is the glue that holds the talented infield together. Tanner can't remember having a more well-respected player.

The outfield may be the diciest area. Senior Harley Lail is back in right after hitting .295 last season. Tanner's sketched out lineup has freshman Justin Hopper in left and Whit Merrifield in center.

The area of uncertainty is on the mound. "Unsettled," is how Tanner describes it.

Mike Cisco, who went 6-2 with a 3.84 ERA as a sophomore last year, should get the Gamecocks' first start, the coach said. After that could be junior lefty Craig Thomas and a freshman right-hander, Parker Bangs.

Cisco says the staff has heard that some don't think South Carolina's pitching can match its hitting. "It does give us a little fire under our butts to get out there and show everybody," he said. "We don't feel we're a weak link."



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