COLUMBIA — Out in the hallway they were getting ready to pile up the bags containing all the bats and gloves. The South Carolina baseball team’s managers always set the gear for road trips in this hallway, next to the wall covered with oversized images from the Gamecocks’ back-to-back national championships — postgame dogpiles, beaming players holding trophies.
The Gamecocks walk by this wall at Carolina Stadium as they board the bus for every road trip, and they did it again Monday, when they departed for Hoover, Ala., and the Southeastern Conference tournament. It’s the beginning of a postseason that they hope ends just like the previous two.
But before the managers gathered the bags and the players walked the hallway, two players hung out in the stadium’s indoor batting cages, just around the corner, and spotted one of the old, powerful bats that college baseball no longer uses. First baseman Christian Walker told third baseman LB Dantzler how this was the type of bat he swung in 2010, when he established himself as one of the most successful postseason performers in the program’s history.
For 20 minutes, Walker told Dantzler about his vivid recollections of his three-run, eighth-inning home run that year against Coastal Carolina, which put the Gamecocks up 10-9 and boosted them into the College World Series. Walker talked about last year’s eighth-inning solo homer against Connecticut that broke a 2-2 tie and helped clinch another World Series berth.
Dantzler, a junior college transfer, wasn’t there for either moment, but he lived them through Walker’s words there in the batting cage as Walker prepared for what likely will be his final postseason at USC.
Walker, a junior, leads USC this season with a .335 batting average, 49 runs batted in and 10 homers. He led the team in all three categories last season (.358, 62 and 10), and as a freshman, he hit .327 with 51 RBI and nine homers. He is widely expected to be selected high enough in the Major League Baseball draft next month that he will turn pro.
He will leave behind a remarkable legacy that already includes staggering College World Series numbers: a .385 batting average, seven runs, seven RBIs, five walks and three strikeouts in 12 games. Just once has he gone hitless in a World Series game. He played last year’s two-game championship series against rival Florida with a broken bone in his left wrist and went 4 for 9 while scoring the winning run in the first game, a 2-1, 11-inning victory.
“He’s been one of the special players to ever wear the garnet and black,” said USC coach Ray Tanner. “Not only has he put up really good numbers, he’s put up good numbers in the clutch.”
Moreover, Walker sharing his positive postseason memories with new players like Dantzler has a calming effect at this time of year, which can be stressful for players not as accustomed to it as USC’s juniors and seniors, who are 21-1 in the past two NCAA tournaments.
“It’s pretty cool, because not a lot of kids can have the conversations I’ve had with these guys, so that’s going to give me some confidence,” Dantzler said.
Walker was a talented hitter before he came to USC. In 2009, he beat future No. 1 draft pick Bryce Harper in a home run derby competition. Like Harper, Walker is a strapping young man, 6 feet and 220 pounds. In college, he became more conscious of working his way into counts that benefit him by staying aggressive earlier in at-bats.
“My mentality at the plate has actually changed a lot since high school,” he said.
Tanner believes Walker’s consciousness about staying back in his stance, particularly during two-strike counts, and hitting to all parts of the park rather than trying to pull every pitch has actually hurt his power numbers but helped his average.
“He probably could hit more home runs if he was a little bit more selfish and wasn’t a complete hitter,” Tanner said.
Two things are generally required to hit a baseball consistently hard: the wrist and forearm strength to swing the bat fast enough, and sharp vision, which is much more of a gift than something you can acquire by lifting weights. It is a gift Walker said he has always had.
Some players will return to the dugout after an at-bat and try to help their teammates by saying they saw a breaking pitch of some sort — maybe a slider, maybe a curveball. Walker’s teammates notice how his brilliance as a hitter comes largely from his ability to recognize, in a split second, what the pitcher just threw. Senior right fielder Adam Matthews said Walker brings back descriptions such as, “It was a changeup, low and away, and it had some sinking action.”
Hundreds of pitches are in Walker’s head from the past two postseasons, along with at-bats he can never forget. His bags were packed Monday and he was thinking about once again starting this postseason journey that he has enjoyed so much.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said.