COLUMBIA — From time to time when he was torn on a personnel decision, former South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner would hold position tryouts before practice. Once he was undecided between two catchers, and he determined that whomever hit the best in batting practice would start the following day.
Current Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook isn’t quite ready to go that far, even though he had an abundance of positional calls to make in the days leading up to Friday’s 4 p.m. season opener against College of Charleston at Carolina Stadium. Friday starter, catcher, infield and outfield combinations — Holbrook wrestled with, and in some cases remains a bit undecided on, all those areas as the two-time national champions begin their quest to return to the College World Series for the first time in three years.
“I’m evaluating things as we go,” Holbrook said.
But not all those decisions were head-scratchers. With Joel Seddon and his 14 saves from a season ago now in the Oakland A’s system, Holbrook needed a new closer — and found one in sophomore Taylor Widener from Aiken, who after compiling a 3-0 record and 1.79 earned run average last year, will begin the 2015 campaign as the shut-down righty in the Gamecocks’ bullpen.
“That was one of the easier calls,” Holbrook said, “just because he’s throwing very well, he’s got closer stuff. You like a guy who can get some strikeouts, you like a guy who can run it up there from a velocity standpoint. And Taylor has a great arm. There’s no question. I think he’s a cool customer. I think he competes. Now, that doesn’t mean that’s going to stay that way. I’d feel comfortable if we started Taylor, and I think he’d feel comfortable if we did that, too. We’ll see how that unfolds.”
For the time being though, Widener will come out of the pen. USC’s rotation for the College of Charleston series will be junior Jack Wynkoop (against Cougars junior Taylor Clarke) on Friday, sophomore Wil Crowe (against junior Nathan Helvey) on Saturday, and sophomore Josh Reagan (against junior Eric Bauer) on Sunday.
“I guess I still haven’t really been told my role as of right now. But I know it’s not starter, because those three guys have been named,” Widener said. “I didn’t really have a preference. I’m out here to play. I’ll do whatever they tell me to do.”
It was but one of many decisions Holbrook had to make as the Gamecocks prepare for a Charleston team that advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals last year. Naming Wynkoop, 7-6 last season, as the Friday starter “was the one thing we wrestled with,” Holbrook said. Sophomore Logan Koch will start the opener at catcher, but freshman Hunter Taylor — whom Holbrook says has middle-of-the-order power — figures to play often. And a hamstring injury to junior shortstop Marcus Mooney has reshuffled some possibilities in both the infield and outfield.
Sophomore infielder Jordan Gore, sophomore outfielder Gene Cone, and senior outfielders Patrick Harrington and Elliott Caldwell are among those who could see their responsibilities increase — maybe even this weekend, if Mooney’s hamstring precludes him from playing against the Cougars.
“When you’ve got a lot of good guys out here,” first baseman Kyle Martin said, “it’s really hard to pick and choose.”
The hope is that depth will provide USC some flexibility in the event of injuries like those the Gamecocks faced in their 44-18 campaign of 2014, which ended short of the Super Regionals for the first time since 2009. South Carolina lost a number of mainstays off that squad including Seddon, catcher Grayson Greiner, infielder Joey Pankake, outfielder Tanner English and weekend starter Jordan Montgomery, and replacing them hasn’t been a simple task.
“We’ve got some guys in some new roles. So it’s going to be interesting for me to see how some guys adjust to those new roles, i.e. Taylor Widener, getting the last three outs of a game. Hopefully, he’s in that position. Wynkoop on Friday, that’s a new position for him. Gene Cone will have more responsibility where he is in the lineup,” Holbrook said.
“We have a lot of questions to be answered. And I think given the quality of the opponent we’re playing, we’ll have a lot of those questions answered over the course of this weekend.”
Widener is accustomed to coming out of the bullpen — he made 21 appearances last season, only two of them starts, and opponents hit .170 against him.
Whether it’s Seddon or World Series hero Matt Price, closers want the ball with the game on the line, Holbrook said. “It’s tough to determine if they have their trait until you put them in that situation.”
Does Widener? “I always want the ball,” he said. There’s one question answered, at least.
South Carolina was picked to finish third in the SEC East in a preseason poll of the league’s coaches released Thursday, while a pair of Gamecocks were named to the preseason All-SEC first team.
USC was picked third in the East behind defending national champion Vanderbilt and Florida, which received 11 and three first-place votes respectively. The Gamecocks were chosen ahead of Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky and Missouri in the division.