COLUMBIA — Hunter Taylor popped from his crouch as if daring the baserunner to go, and when the runner looked back as he was sprinting, Taylor knew.
“You’re mine. You're MINE."
Taylor’s perfect strike to second base wiped out that runner. He repeated it in the same game, along with catching a relay from Carlos Cortes to nail another poor sap at the plate. Taylor caught every inning in USC's 2-1 series win over Missouri to keep the Gamecocks pointed toward the postseason, and afterward channeled Ernie Banks in trying to play one more.
“I feel great,” he said. “I’d catch another one right now if it was another game like that.”
Catchers aren’t supposed to catch 27 innings on the first weekend of summer in Columbia, also known as a sauna with mosquitoes. Taylor, the rugged senior who spent all of last year’s postseason-less summer working to reconstruct his body so he could catch those 27 innings in a year like this one, is experiencing the benefits of that labor.
And of sticking with his commitment. After his 2016 sophomore season, even after being named to the all-regional team and recording a game-winning RBI in an elimination game, he was out of Columbia quicker than the two-week gap between winter and summer.
He changed his mind, yanked back his transfer release and said he’d stay after all. Now he’s hitting .270 with eight homers and 29 RBIs and is becoming known as the “clutch” guy.
Need a big knock? Need a defensive play? Call Taylor, whose No. 38 has become awfully special behind the plate.
“Lost 30 pounds, because we told him, ‘If you’re ever going to have any kind of impact on this game and this program in your last year, you need to get in the best shape of your life.’ Being in great shape now has taken his defense to a whole new level,” coach Mark Kingston said. “He’s just playing such good baseball at this point, we need to play him.”
Nothing against Chris Cullen, the Gamecocks’ other catcher, but USC has to play its best lineup after pulling its feet out of the fire this week. The Gamecocks dropped three in a row to suddenly make their earned postseason berth shakier than ESPN programming, but rallied to win the final two games of the Missouri series and stabilize their standing.
That’s why Taylor came back. Not to miss the postseason in 2017, but to be part of a late charge to capture a regional berth as a senior. It’s why he worked out more, quit skipping breakfast in favor of eating a large lunch and gave up his beloved cheeseburgers, cutting down to maybe one a month.
“I got a little bit quicker, little bit easier to do a lot more stuff,” Taylor said. “I can get more swings in without getting as tired. I worked on my defense a lot. That was a big thing I wanted to improve on.”
Would-be base-stealers know it. Their shared view lately is sliding into second and looking up to see an umpire with his thumb in the air.
“I look at it in the long run as it was supposed to happen,” Taylor mused of his about-face after his sophomore season. “Here we are this year in a good spot, and hopefully it’s a good thing. I’m glad I came back.”
Plenty share that view.