Hands, as you might suspect, are vital when it comes to playing baseball. If they're not healthy, you're going to encounter a pretty unhappy ballplayer.

That was South Carolina sophomore Jackie Bradley Jr., about a month ago.

Coach Ray Tanner stopped short of categorizing the outfielder's behavior as bad body language, but it was obvious that something was off for one of the Gamecocks' all-around stars.

"I told him, 'You're not smiling enough for me,' " Tanner said. "Jackie's not necessarily a rah-ray guy; he's a very even-keeled player. He respects the game and he plays it.

"But he was a little more quiet than I would like for him to be."

Bradley remembers the conversation. He explains it with express political correctness, enunciating the heck out of each word to avoid a miscarriage of tone.

"We were discussing a few of my at-bats," Bradley said. "I guess, I wasn't happy about some of my at-bats. I wanted my at-bats to be better.

"I wasn't doing what I feel like is my capability."

Specifically, Bradley said he wasn't hitting to all fields and wasn't hitting for a whole lot of power.

The reason? Lingering frustration that his hands weren't cooperating with him.

Bradley broke a bone in his right hand just before the season began. The fractured hamate bone, in his palm, required recovery time that lasted into the season.

Bradley returned a bit sooner than expected, by the March 3 game against Presbyterian and the ensuing Clemson series, but he wasn't quite himself.

Because of the location of the break, it's tough to build up strength enough to grip the bat -- and, really, grip the bat with any comfort and confidence.

As he was working to increase that grip strength, he suffered a setback -- in the other hand. Bradley's left hand was cleated sliding into second base, suffering a laceration between the thumb and index finger that required stitches.

The cut resulted in a similar struggle with gripping the bat.

The season was less than a month old, and Bradley had already lost full function in both hands.

Bradley has become accustomed to mystifying, irritating injuries.

Last year, before his freshman season began, he was hospitalized because of rare blood clotting. The discovery: An extra rib had his blood flow all out of sorts.

"I'd never had injuries, period, until I got to college," Bradley said. "Last year, the rib. This year, the hamate. I'm just waiting to see what I've got next year."

Well, in the meantime, Bradley is busy getting back into the form that everyone -- including Bradley -- expected from the start of the season for the consensus Freshman All-American.

By the end of the April 25 sweep at Georgia -- and Bradley's 4-for-4 day that included a homer and the game-winning RBI single -- Bradley had the team's top batting average.

Bradley was aware, all along, that it would take time to feel like himself.

"It was going to be a gradual process. I knew it was," Bradley said. "As a competitor, you want to get back as fast as possible, no matter what the circumstances are."

The last thing to come back, understandably, was Bradley's power. He hit 11 home runs and had 11 doubles and two triples (.349 average) as a freshman.

Through the Georgia series, including that Sunday homer, he had just five extra-base hits on the year.

"I'm impressed he's hitting what he's hitting, to be honest with you," Tanner said last week. "I wish the power numbers were a little higher, but if you think about what he's been through, it'd be easy to be sitting here with a guy hitting .250 or .260."

Tanner said he had taken note of little, positive signs that the power is on the way -- higher bat speed in practices, opposite field hits here and there.

That's proven prophetic. Last weekend's Alabama series win was more evidence of an emerging Bradley. He had four extra-base hits against the Tide, compared to the five all season.

Bradley went 3 for 5, with a home run and a triple, in the Friday victory against Alabama. He homered, too, to open the scoring Sunday in a 20-15 win that won the series.

"I'm feeling pretty good," said Bradley. "I'm very comfortable and confident at the plate. By me feeling confident, my teammates feel confident in me at the plate."

Bradley was hitting .343 in 40 games, and 34 starts, coming into the week.

The No. 6 Gamecocks have fared exceptionally well without Bradley being up to Bradley's own standard.

On Wednesday, Bradley hit his sixth and seventh home runs of the year -- he has five in the last five games -- with two against Winthrop.

The smile is back, and so is Bradley's bat.

"I think we're starting to see the real Jackie Bradley," Gamecocks associate head coach Chad Holbrook said, just after the Alabama series. "It just adds another dimension to our team. That'll make our team tougher to beat."

South Carolina travels to Kentucky (24-20, 7-14) this weekend for a three-game series.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).