OMAHA—Even at the end, as Ray Tanner and his players sat draped in national championship hats and T-shirts answering questions from media, Tanner insisted that his scrappy bunch was not a juggernaut.
“Even after tonight we’re not a great team,” the South Carolina’s coach said an hour or so after his Gamecocks had been crowned national champions, “but we’ve been a really, really special baseball team that approached it the right way and found a way to win and never gave in, never gave up. And it was real. It wasn’t just talk. And when we did have some adversity, they flushed it rather quickly and got back up.”
The 2010 Gamecocks were special, to be sure. But like other unlikely champions, they were special for their mental toughness and resilience more than anything else.
South Carolina’s even keel starts at the top. Tanner’s steadying, calming presence as well as his magic touch with lineup decisions were integral to his team’s title run. It’s no surprise, then, that Tanner is Baseball America’s 2010 College Coach of the Year. Tanner, who also won the award in 2000, joins Augie Garrido, Gene Stephenson, Skip Bertman and Dave Snow as two-time winners.
“We know we’re good, but we’re never really thinking, ‘Oh, we’re so good,’ ” said South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series. “Then when we get down in certain games, we’re like, ‘We’re not that bad.’ We’re kind of a happy medium team, and I think (Tanner’s) presence in the dugout just means a lot. He’s kind of steady.”
The first game of the CWS Finals was a perfect illustration of the special clubhouse atmosphere that Tanner has fostered—and of his growth as a coach. Usually reliable second baseman Scott Wingo was struggling with his defense in the game, committing two errors.
“And his teammates were razzing him the entire time,” Tanner said. “Here’s a guy that’s struggling to pick up a baseball and all they’re doing is getting on him every inning, and he started laughing. It’s a different way to do it. But I know this: When you have anxiety and tension, you can’t perform.
“I think my teams have been that way at times because of me, and I try not to be that way anymore.”
Scoring runs was a challenge at times for South Carolina in 2010, but Tanner found ways to motivate his hitters. Bradley said he can’t help but chuckle sometimes when his coach starts reading players the riot act, but Tanner’s style gets players’ attention without creating too much tension.
“He really gets everything out of you,” Bradley said.
After the Gamecocks scored just one run in a 0-2 showing at the SEC tournament, Tanner expressed frustration with his team’s offensive approach and promised the team would work hard in two-a-day practice sessions over the next three days. The goal was to get his hitters to be more aggressive.
“It was a tough time for our team,” junior outfielder Whit Merrifield said. “But I think it just shows the character of this team. We’re a team that never gives up and never quits. We were very energetic and very excited about the opportunity at hand. And we knew we had a lot of season left.”
The team responded to Tanner’s two-a-days exactly as the coach hoped it would. The Gamecocks carried the energy from those practice sessions over to regionals and super regionals, scoring nine or more runs in five of their next seven games, including all three games in the Columbia Regional.
Pushing The Right Buttons
During South Carolina’s remarkable run to the title, Tanner also showed a masterful ability to put his players in position to succeed. He heeded the advice of pitching coach Mark Calvi and rode the hot hand of lefthanded specialist Michael Roth in Omaha. Roth yielded just one run over 14 innings in his first two starts of the season. He installed freshman Evan Marzilli atop the lineup down the stretch. Marzilli quickly emerged as a catalyst and wound up earning all-CWS honors.
He trusted that ace Blake Cooper (twice) and No. 2 starter Sam Dyson were conditioned enough to bounce back on three days’ rest in Omaha, and both pitchers rewarded him with standout performances to help keep the postseason run alive.
He mixed and matched in the bullpen all season, and his bullpen was one of the nation’s best. He utilized platoons at first base and DH and in the outfield for much of the season, patiently waiting for Marzilli and fellow freshman Christian Walker to emerge as regulars.
And when his Gamecocks faced adversity, Tanner made sure they were ready for it.
“It doesn’t work out for you all the time,” Tanner said. “I tell the players all the time, it’s a game of percentages. But if you play it the right way and have a good approach, you’re going to get yours, too.”