Gamecocks open with close victory
COLUMBIA -- To start the day, they honored the past.
The 8,200-plus fans streamed into Carolina Stadium on Friday and roared at the videoboard highlights of South Carolina's 2011 baseball national championship. They watched the school's costumed Gamecock mascot raise a back-to-back national champions flag in the outfield. They gawked as former star players Jackie Bradley Jr. and Scott Wingo threw out the first pitches.
To end the day, they applauded the future.
They saw what USC's players and coaches have seen all spring: new third baseman LB Dantzler, a junior who transferred from a junior college, smacking a line-drive single into centerf ield and driving in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of a 2-1 win over Virginia Military Institute.
The result itself means little in USC's pursuit of a third consecutive national title, a feat one other team has achieved, and not since 1974. Friday was more of a celebration than anything, a sold-out party. But as the Gamecocks and their fans recognized the past two years and witnessed the potential of 2012, the game became something they have grown accustomed to -- a tense victory.
USC last season was 13-2 in one-run games, including 3-0 in the College World Series. In 2010, the Gamecocks were 8-7 in one-run games, 3-1 in the World Series, where they are 11-1 overall the past two years.
As nine players from last year's team watched Friday's season opener, including former third baseman Adrian Morales, they saw Dantzler appear just as comfortable in a big spot as they were.
When USC coach Ray Tanner recruited Dantzler, he admired the way Dantzler, a left-handed batter, could hit the ball to the opposite field -- so proficiently that Tanner has encouraged Dantzler lately to try pulling the ball more often. Dantzler wowed Tanner during USC's nine spring scrimmages by hitting five home runs.
"It's impossible to continue the way he's swinging the bat," Tanner said earlier this week.
Dantzler was 0 for 3 Friday when he stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth. But one of his previous at-bats ended with a fly ball to the warning track in dead center field.
Now, in the eighth, with Evan Marzilli on second, Dantzler found himself behind 0-2 after taking a first-pitch fastball that "I probably should've hit," he said later. Down 0-2, he just wanted, naturally, to "use the whole field."
The day before the game, he talked about the nerves he knew he would feel during the opener. He woke up Friday morning and wrote on his Twitter account, "Last night was like trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve when your 6 years old."
In the early innings, he felt more anxious than he thought he might. In the third, he tried backhanding a sharply hit ground ball that bounced off his glove and resulted in a single. But he calmed down, ending the fifth by scooping a one-hopper and seamlessly throwing to first -- a testament to his improved defense, once a concern for him.
A day that started for Dantzler with stress ended with reflection. He stood on first base after driving that 0-2 pitch to center, bringing Marzilli home. He looked around at the 8,000-plus fans, standing and cheering for him, and absorbed the moment.
"I'll definitely remember it for probably the rest of my life," he said.
Today's game between USC and VMI has been moved from 3 p.m. to noon because of anticipated rain. Sunday's series finale is still scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Standing room only tickets remain for both games.