Gamecocks begin title defense

South Carolina pitcher Michael Roth will start on the mound for the defending national champions in today’s opener against Santa Clara.

COLUMBIA -- Replete with a flyover by fighter jets and a flag- raising ceremony, South Carolina's baseball opener this afternoon at Carolina Stadium is likely to be about the 2010 Gamecocks as much as the 2011 version.

Like a relief pitcher coming out of a game, though, USC coach Ray Tanner says the time has come to close the book on the national championship team and embrace the group setting out to defend that title.

"I'm OK with (celebrating) a little bit (today)," Tanner said, "but the truth of the matter is it is time to turn the page. It's a great memory, and it's OK to draw from it, but from this point forward we're going to try to do the best we can to put a good club on the field in 2011."

First pitch against Santa Clara today is set for 3 p.m. The ace from last season's team, Blake Cooper, will throw out the first pitch a few minutes earlier. Another Omaha hero, left-hander Michael Roth, will throw the season's official first pitch.

Coaches were between Roth and sophomore left-hander Tyler Webb for the opening day start, but went with Roth because of his experience and smarts. Roth threw a three-hit complete game against Clemson in the College World Series and then held UCLA at bay for five innings in the eventual national title-clinching win.

Roth threw 24 innings in USC's first 63 games last season before pitching 16 1/3 innings in 10 days in Omaha. Naturally, he's a starter now. And he'll start out as the Gamecocks' No. 1.

"It's special," Roth said of getting the start. "It's special to me and my family and to the baseball family here. We're going to be celebrating last year and also celebrating a new year, in which we get to defend our title for the first time."

The Gamecocks were not picked to win their division a year ago -- and they did not win the SEC East, even though they went on to win a national title. So, no one is having a fit this season that the league's coaches this week picked them third, behind Florida and Vanderbilt.

"I'd like to finish better than that," Tanner said, "but I don't take that as any disrespect."

Added preseason All-American Jackie Bradley Jr.: "Paper ain't going to win no games."

It goes back to pitching. Florida and Vanderbilt return starters, USC does not. Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson's exits means Roth, who relieved until the College World Series, and Webb, who didn't pitch much down the stretch, are the top two options.

Like last season, there's no clear-cut No. 3 starter. Redshirt sophomore left-hander Adam Westmoreland will likely get the start Sunday, but Steven Neff, Bryan Harper and Colby Holmes are not far off the pace. Westmoreland is coming off elbow surgery that cost him last season. Tanner said one weekend's rotation is no guarantee for the following weekend's trio. It could be a week-to-week adventure with the staff.

Every coach in America is wondering how the new composite bats will affect their team this season. Tanner said he figures the new configuration will at least cut USC's home run total in half in 2011. The Gamecocks hit 97 home runs a season ago.

Fortunately for South Carolina, Tanner started retooling his team a few seasons ago, realizing the bat changes were on the way. Look no further than the outfield of Evan Marzilli, Bradley and Adam Matthews to realize the Gamecocks are about much more than mashing the ball out of Carolina Stadium.

All three have good speed, with Marzilli and Matthews possessing terrific quickness. Bradley is one of the best defensive center fielders in the country, because of his instincts and vision. Add returning offensive leaders such as corner infielders Adrian Morales and Christian Walker, and the Gamecocks should still produce plenty of runs, even if the ball isn't leaving the park.

"It's a lot different than last year," said Walker, who hit a team-best .429 in the College World Series, "but you can't really complain about it. Everybody's in the same boat."

Today also figures to be the debut of a couple of newcomers: leadoff candidate and shortstop Peter Mooney and catcher Dante Rosenberg.

A successful 2011, Bradley said, would be to make it to the NCAA tournament and see what happens from there. Hey, it worked in 2010.

"We can't be complacent," Bradley said. "We've got to put everything in the past behind us. ... Everybody knows 'championship this' and 'championship that,' but what you do coming up isn't related to what you did last year. Everybody's going to be gunning for us."