MYRTLE BEACH -- Adrian Morales and Whit Merrifield are both juniors on South Carolina's baseball team. There's an important distinction, though, between the two.

Merrifield has been a Gamecock for three years. It's the first season for Morales, a junior-college transfer from Miami.

And yet Morales marched on campus with the attitude of a veteran, a leader every bit the equal of Merrifield.

"He's the kind of guy that, when he comes in, you immediately hate him," Merrifield said. "You're like, 'Who is this kid? Who does he think he is?' "

That conversation actually happened between Merrifield and sophomore outfielder Adam Matthews. A second conversation, however, followed not too long after that one.

"But it doesn't take long before you want him on your team," Merrifield said. "You're glad he's on your team. That's how it's been."

What alters that sentiment? How does it change, and change so relatively quickly?

Merrifield said you start to understand what Morales, an infielder who eventually settled in at third base, is all about after watching him do something like take a ground ball off his chest and not flinch or lean into a pitch during a scrimmage.

The kid has an edge to him, without question. It's obvious every time he opens his mouth. But it's an edge that's both consistent and genuine -- and rooted in fierce loyalty.

"You see that he wants to win," Merrifield said. "I know it's college ball, but if there was ever a benches-clearing fight, he'd be the first one out there to have your back.

"He's definitely the kind of guy you want on your team. He reminds me a lot of coach Tanner, just the desire to win at all costs. He's the kind of guy you need to have on your team if you want to go far."

That comparison, to Tanner, is an interesting one. Merrifield isn't the only one that offers it.

In fact, minutes before Merrifield did so, unprovoked, Morales had sort of similarly dissected it.

"I'm straight-forward with him. He's honest with me," Morales said. "He'll say, 'Look, you need to step it up.' And I'll take that to heart. I'm my biggest critic. I know if I need to step it up. I did this past weekend."

In the important Florida series and SEC tournament, Morales was 2-for-20 at the plate. He looked listless. Tanner told him, in that straight-forward manner, that his approach was awry.

Morales responded, very directly, by going 7-for-14 with three home runs, two doubles, driving in seven runs, in the team's three regional victories.

Statistics certainly don't tell the whole story with a player, but an interesting cross-section has followed Morales this season, his first in the SEC.

Morales' average has only climbed above .300 a couple of times since conference play began, but he's consistently been the team's leader in RBIs. He currently has 52 runs driven in, to go with a .288 average.

That means he makes his hits count.

"He's been clutch for us all year long. It's good to see him swinging the bat," Merrifield said. "We call him Geico because he always provides insurance. Every time we need insurance runs, he always comes through. He's been a great, great asset to our team."

Several times in the past week, Tanner has used the word "accountable" to describe Morales. Tanner acknowledges, too, that Morales isn't a Justin Smoak kind of talent.

Turns out that's what fuels the intensity that teammates like Merrifield notice immediately -- and then eventually fall in love with.

"It is true. I do hold myself accountable because I'm not blessed with the ability that a lot of these guys are blessed with," he said. "That helps me to help this team win."

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