COLUMBIA -- In February, South Carolina's baseball team had no idea how -- or if -- Matt Price would be able to help.
A hard-throwing right-hander coming off wrist surgery, the redshirt freshman was at best a wild card in a suddenly deep bullpen pool.
Look at him now: Price is the team's unquestioned closer on a team headed this week for Omaha. Saves nine and 10 came this past weekend in the Gamecocks' super regional win at Coastal Carolina.
"He's one of the surprises of this season, no question," South Carolina pitching coach Mark Calvi said.
All Price did Saturday was enter a bases-loaded, none-out situation in a one-run game in the eighth. He struck out the first two batters and got a comebacker to end the inning and, improbably, keep the Chanticleers off the board. USC went on to win 4-3.
"Never did I think he'd get out of that with no runs scored," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "I mean, c'mon, that's too difficult. But I was thinking, if he had a pretty good inning, we'd keep it close."
Price said his goal was to at least keep the runner on second from scoring. His worst-case scenario was leaving it a tie game.
"I don't know even know how I did it," he said. "I just knew if I went in there and pounded the strike zone, and threw my offspeed (pitches) for strikes, that I was going to get the job done and keep our team in position."
Price pitched a scoreless ninth for the two-inning save. He worked a perfect ninth Sunday after Christian Walker's dramatic three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to earn his second save in as many days.
After the game Saturday, Coastal coach Gary Gilmore wore this stunned look on his face, in part because of Price. He said Price's fastball had far more life on it than his scouting reports indicated.
That got a wry laugh out of Calvi on Monday.
"Well, that's why they couldn't hit him," said Calvi, becoming almost incredulous at the idea that someone thought Price was a soft-tosser. "Because he throws 95. They got a bad report, because the kid throws 90-95."
He didn't always. When Calvi first encountered Price as a sophomore at Sumter High, he could hit 90 or 91 on the radar gun.
After getting on USC's workout program last year, Price got his heater up to 93, with promise for more speed.
Interestingly enough, as Calvi reminded a couple of reporters, Saturday wasn't the first time Price had inherited a bases-loaded situation.
On March 7, 2009, with USC leading Long Beach State 3-2, Price came in with the bases juiced and two out in the fourth inning. He got Long Beach's No. 3 hitter to strike out, looking. Price went on to pitch 2 2/3 innings, giving up a run, to earn the first victory of his career.
Soon after, Price broke his wrist. That break also snapped his first-year momentum -- a surge that might have been directing Price toward the team's starting rotation.
Instead, Price spent his summer and fall slowly rehabbing himself back to health. Control and command were the last things to come around, which left Calvi wondering, even as late as February, how he could use the 6-2, 215-pounder on his staff in 2010.
Calvi started throwing him into various situations, with a key one coming March 6 in Greenville.
In a 4-4 game against Clemson, Calvi and Tanner called for Price to face talented Tigers freshman Richie Shaffer with two outs in the eighth inning. Kyle Parker stood on first, representing the go-ahead run.
Price struck Shaffer out. The Gamecocks scored three in the top of the ninth, and Price got his first victory of the season.
"When he struck out Shaffer in front of seven or eight thousand people, I knew it was the start of something," Calvi said. "He showed competitiveness and poise. He showed the signs of being a guy for us."
In the weeks that followed, Calvi and Price worked to give Price a new strategy against left-handed hitters. Because of a weak changeup, Price started throwing his curveball differently -- and more effectively -- to lefties.
"Usually you do that during offseasons, in the fall," Calvi said of those stark changes. "Very rarely do you start coming up with different things in the spring that work."
Adding more intrigue, Price also developed a slider from thin air in March. It's been helpful, particularly against left-handed hitters.
"It seems pretty unbelievable. I picked up that slider out of nowhere," said Price, 3-1 with a 2.54 ERA in 46 innings. "I just started messing around with it, throwing it in the pen one day. It worked out pretty good."
You could say the same for the Gamecocks' surprise closer.