COLUMBIA — If everything went according to plan, freshman left fielder Tanner English would be playing for Coastal Carolina, not South Carolina, in this weekend’s NCAA baseball regional in Columbia.
English attended St. James High in Murrells Inlet, which is 14 miles south of Coastal Carolina. He was committed to play for the Chanticleers until just before he signed with USC in November 2010, during his senior year.
“I was 100 percent committed there and I was excited, but things just didn’t work out,” said English. “I kind of expanded my options and ended up here.”
Now, English is starting and ranks second on USC with a .309 batting average. The Gamecocks open tournament play at 4 p.m. Friday against Manhattan, while Coastal Carolina plays at noon against Clemson. And while everybody is talking this week about a potential USC-Clemson matchup on Saturday, USC-Coastal Carolina would feature an intriguing subplot as well.
English declined to detail what resulted in him changing his commitment, but said his recruiting connection to Coastal Carolina is something he is “not going to worry about.”
“I try not to think about that too much,” he said. “I’m obviously here now. That’s just something I’m not going to address. That’s in the past. I’m trying to worry about the postseason right now. It’s really not that big of a deal.
“I’m a big believer — and my mom has kind of told me — that everything happens for a reason. It seems kind of cliched, but I really believe it does. So I ended up here and I’m just ready to go out there and do it.”
He has proven himself this season, living up to being a 13th-round draft pick by Tampa Bay last year — the second-highest drafted player in USC’s freshman class. If junior Evan Marzilli decides to turn pro, which is a distinct possibility, English will be the center fielder in 2013.
English is primarily a singles hitter. He has 63 hits, tied for second-most on the team, but just six for extra bases, and zero home runs. But he has an alarming number of strikeouts, a team-high 55, for someone who isn’t a power hitter. His 13 walks are fewest among USC’s regulars, which is why his on-base percentage, .356, is low for a hitter with his batting average.
If he got on base more frequently, he could take advantage of his speed. He is the team’s fastest player and has stolen nine bases in 11 attempts this season.
“When he’s hitting the ball well and running the bases and making plays in the outfield, it doesn’t get any better than that,” USC coach Ray Tanner said. “That’s All-American-type status. Then he has those days when he’s inconsistent and he strikes out a little bit too much right now and the game bothers him and he gets a little agitated with it.”
Tanner wants his freshmen to model their approach after Marzilli’s even-keel demeanor, which is often easier said than done for young players.
Even if USC doesn’t play Clemson on Saturday, the development of USC’s three starting freshmen — English, shortstop Joey Pankake and catcher Grayson Greiner — was expedited by the three-game series against Clemson in early March, and, according to English, by the fact that 24 of USC’s 57 games have been decided by one run. (The Gamecocks are 12-12 in those games.)
“(The Clemson series) was definitely a good atmosphere to put them in right away and make them experience success, failure, everything in a series like that, with the pressure that is on that series,” said junior first baseman Christian Walker. “Only good things could come out of it.”
Said English: “It was definitely a good thing, playing in a situation like that, because we’re going to need that toughness for the postseason.”
Note USC pitcher Michael Roth was named the SEC baseball scholar-athlete of the year. Walker was USC’s only first-team All-SEC selection, while closer Matt Price made the second team. On the all-freshman team: English, Greiner and Pankake. Roth and Marzilli made the all-defensive team.