Evan Marzilli quite a catch for No. 2 Gamecocks
COLUMBIA -- Up against the backdrop of the night sky Wednesday at Carolina Stadium, the ball looked like it might soar over the fence in left center field, or at least bounce off it. South Carolina coach Ray Tanner thought that in the best-case scenario, it would fall for a double.
Instead, USC center fielder Evan Marzilli raced toward the warning track, reached up and snagged the ball. He bounced off the wall, spun and threw back toward the infield, catching a runner who left second base early.
The play ended a 6-4 win over Appalachian State and seemed a fitting way for the Gamecocks to enter Southeastern Conference play, starting today at Kentucky (7 p.m., Comcast Sports Southeast). No USC position player was more reliable than Marzilli in the first 16 games, during which the Gamecocks went 15-1.
Marzilli, a junior, took over for Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field this season after playing left field last year. A center fielder his entire life, Marzilli had to move to left when he arrived at USC because Bradley occupied center.
"I've been waiting for this for two years, so I was pretty excited about this year," Marzilli said.
Though it's still early, Marzilli is proving himself as this team's best all-around player so far.
In the field, 12 days before his play Wednesday, he preserved a 3-2 11-inning win over Clemson with a diving catch for the game's final out, when a single would have given Clemson the victory.
At the plate, he is third on the team with a .323 batting average, first in hits (21) and runs (12), and reached safely in every game. On the bases, he leads USC with six steals, on eight tries.
USC has played just one opponent close to its level, Clemson, and the Gamecocks took two of three games. Marzilli could level off in SEC play -- he hit .291 last season in all games -- because he will face much better pitching, beginning tonight.
Kentucky starts three left-handed pitchers who combine to average 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Marzilli bats lefty, so this might be a challenge for him. (USC's three starters average 10.4 strikeouts per nine.)
Of course, just as Marzilli compiled admirable statistics against non-conference opponents, the Wildcats are 18-0 and the only unbeaten team in the country, but unranked in the Baseball America poll because their non-league schedule is so modest.
"You hear a lot about they're winning games and playing good baseball, but you never really know until you get out there," said USC first baseman Christian Walker.
Regardless, Marzilli plans to stick with what he's doing. In the offseason, he worked on a more purposeful hitting approach. Now, he said he is "looking for certain pitches in certain counts instead of just free swinging, maybe like I was in the past."
After another well-rounded Marzilli performance Wednesday, in which he drove in a career-best four runs to go with his improbable game-ending catch, Tanner was asked if Marzilli might be a better fielder than Bradley Jr., the 2010 College World Series' Most Outstanding Player.
Tanner paused for a few seconds, then offered an answer that highlights how happy he feels about the success he keeps seeing in center field, even with a new face there.
"If you had twins," he said, "would you love one more than the other?"