COLUMBIA — Tanner English, South Carolina’s center fielder of the future, stood alongside Jackie Bradley Jr. and Evan Marzilli, two of the Gamecocks’ best ever at the position.
English had just arrived at USC in the fall of 2011. He soon found himself fielding fly balls at practice with Bradley, who turned pro after the 2011 season, and Marzilli, who would replace Bradley in 2012, then also leave school early to play for pay.
English was a lifelong center fielder, faster than both Bradley and Marzilli. English knew how to play the position, but was smart enough to understand he wasn’t an expert. So he watched and listened. He saw how quickly Bradley and Marzilli got jumps on fly balls. Then he learned that the best center fielders react fast, but not too fast.
English’s instinct on a fly ball was basic — immediately sprint after it. Even if he caught the ball, he wasn’t always taking the best route to it. When this happened in practice, Bradley approached him and encouraged him to be patient, wait after the ball was hit, and make sure he took the proper route — even if this meant he didn’t catch it. Creating good habits and new instincts mattered more in practice anyway.
“Every time you do it, you can start making that first reaction right off the bat, and with the perfect route,” English said. “And you get to way more balls. Just being out there with those guys, there’s no other training that’s better than that.”
Bradley, who was called up Wednesday by the Boston Red Sox, also worked out at USC last fall. He and English again talked center field strategy in practice. Between English’s natural speed and the tactics he learned from Bradley and Marzilli, he has become one of college baseball’s best defensive center fielders as a sophomore this season.
English, who played left field last season, has 136 putouts this year and just one error. He is maintaining a tradition that saw Marzilli make two errors in 2012 and Bradley have one in 2011.
English was a 13th-round Major League Baseball draft pick out of high school, and could go higher next season if he can improve his hitting. He hit .298 last year, second on the team, but had a .341 on-base percentage because he struck out 71 times and walked 14. USC coach Chad Holbrook had him switch-hit this season to decrease his strikeouts, but English had to return to only hitting right-handed because of a shoulder injury.
Still, while his batting average is down to .262 entering Friday’s NCAA tournament opener against Saint Louis, his on-base percentage is .368 and he has 40 strikeouts and 20 walks — valuable progress because his quickness can change games in center field or on the base paths. He stole 12 of 15 bases last year and is four of nine this season.
English came to USC with a reputation as a prodigious athlete.
USC catcher Grayson Greiner first witnessed it when they were high school seniors and their teams played.
“We pitched out three times, and he stole on me three times on three pitchouts,” Greiner said.
English, who can perform back flips, still wows his teammates — never more so than in a critical series last month at LSU, where USC went 2-1 and boosted its credentials for hosting an NCAA tournament regional.
In one win, English broke a 2-2 ninth-inning tie with a triple. The next day, USC led 3-0 in the eighth inning of a game it would win 4-0. LSU had a runner on first with one out when Sean McMullen ripped a ball into left-center field.
“I was almost positive it was a double,” Greiner said. “It was smoked.”
English ran for it. Understand that English’s teammates speak about his speed with hyperbolic reverence: “It’s like he glides,” said right fielder Connor Bright. “He’s like a gazelle.”
But even Bright wasn’t sure if English could reach this one. Left fielder Graham Saiko charged for the ball, too. Suddenly, he heard English call him off: “Ball! Ball! Ball!” Saiko cut away to back up English. Then he saw English soar across his field of vision and make a diving catch.
“All I remember was just kind of seeing it off the bat and taking off,” English said. “At first, I didn’t think I was going to get there. I just kind of caught up to it, and the only shot I had was laying out. Luckily, it went in my glove.”