Column: Casey, Ray and hunches

By James Kratch

The great Connie Mack once said of legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel that he had never seen a man “who juggled his lineup so much and who played so many hunches so successfully.”

If the winningest manager in big league history was still stalking dugouts today in his trademark straw hat, he could say the same words about South Carolina coach Ray Tanner.

There are a lot of reasons why South Carolina, after a 4-3 defeat of archrival Clemson tonight, has risen from the bleak depths of the loser’s bracket to within 54 defensive outs of the school’s first national championship.

But, whether you’ve watched Carolina’s run in Omaha from the friendly confines of Rosenblatt Stadium, in high-definition from your northern New Jersey family room or someplace in-between, one thing has been readily apparent: the biggest reason, by a mile, has been the gutsy and brilliant tactical maneuvers by USC’s grizzled leader, who has channeled Stengel ever since the postseason began.

At first glance, it’s hard to find a lot of similarities between Stengel, the ebullient “Old Perfesser” and the stoic Tanner. But, in guiding the Gamecocks back to the College World Series finals for the first time since 2002, Tanner has exhibited the guile and instincts that Stengel relied upon in managing the Yankees to seven world championship.

Stengel was notorious for playing any and all hunches that crossed his mind – he was the first manager to strategically pinch hit for pitchers in an attempt to break a game open, and he was even known to move players in and out of the lineup as early as the bottom of the first inning. Little he did ever seemed to make sense, that is, until the Bronx Bombers prevailed, which was more often than not.

Tanner has been in that same zone of late, and it too has led to wins for the Gamecocks.

It started prior to the Columbia Regional. After using freshman outfielder Evan Marzilli for little more than late-inning defensive insurance and national anthem stylings on the electric guitar during the regular season, Tanner saw something out of him in the practices leading up to the regional, and decided to start him in the opening game against Bucknell and in a pinch hitting spot against The Citadel the next day.

In return, Tanner got six hits and five runs batted in total out of the young buck from Rhode Island.

Then, the elimination game against Oklahoma, which was to Tanner’s gambling spirit as the Mona Lisa was to da Vinci. First, there was the insane idea to throw Blake Cooper on three days rest after throwing 67 pitches against the same Sooners in the opening game loss. Many scoffed at the decision. When Cooper walked off the mound after 5 2/3 brilliant innings of one run, four hit ball, nobody was armchair managing Tanner.

A little bit later that night, with OU entering the bottom of the 12th leading 2-1 and three outs from ending Carolina’s season, the leadoff hitter in the frame for USC was Robert Beary – who had entered the game off the bench and looked horrible in his only at-bat, not even lifting the aluminum off his shoulder as he struck out looking.

Many thought Tanner should pinch hit for Beary, an assumed automatic out in a situation where USC had precious few batter retirements left to play with. Many more jumped on to that sentiment’s bandwagon when Beary fell behind 0-2 on two big looping and late hacks.

Ping. Line drive. Base hit. Left field.

Moments later, Mr. Beary went from second to home on Jackie Bradley’s 3-2, two out RBI stroke to right, tying the game at 2. Bradley himself came around soon after that (with Beary jumping into his arms), sending USC to Palmetto State Baseball Armageddon in Omaha, Part II, and Tanner in search of a starting pitcher.

Several names were bandied about: Tyler Webb, Jay Brown, Matt Price, Jose Mata.

The name that was chosen: Michael Roth. Wait, who? Michael Roth? The lefty setup man? Clearly, ol’ Ray had lost his mind. Going to a guy who, best case scenario, could give the team three innings? Nuts.

Well, Roth gave them three innings – times three. The Tigers swung like rusty gates as the southpaw threw an inexplicable three-hitter over nine innings, bringing Carolina to Saturday’s do-or-die, winner-take-all return clash against CU.

Obviously, given the way Roth dominated, the starting pitcher just had to be a lefty. Right? Two days later, Webb was going to get the start he supposed to have gotten against Oklahoma, right?

Nope. Enter Sam Dyson on three-days rest after throwing 100+ pitches. Enter all the second-guesses again.

And, with Dyson’s 5 2/3 innings of two run, five hit ball setting the foundation, enter one of the only two remaining college baseball teams in America wearing garnet and black, as Tanner’s gut once again proved prophetic.

“I don’t think anybody could have managed our club like Casey did,” Don Larsen once said about his old manager, who also happened to be the same guy who gave Larsen, on a hunch, the ball in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series after he had blown a 6-0 lead in Game 2, being rewarded with the only perfect game in postseason history that day.

“He made what some people call stupid moves, but about eight or nine out of ten of them worked.”

For Tanner, it’s been more like ten out of ten have worked over these past few weeks. His hot streak has been a refreshing one, if for nothing more because it proves that it’s still possible in this day and age to win the old-school way rather than the nouveau riche “Moneyball” way.

For better or worse, the modern game of baseball has been hijacked in a sense by a deluge of statistical analysis, sabermetrics and match-up micro-managing. Instead of relying on old-fashioned courage and wiles, managers have begun listening to the insights of Ivy League mathematicians and business students masquerading as baseball men, devouring their printouts and computer-generated charts.

In other words, it has become the complete polar opposite of the game that Casey was a part of for most. But, as we have learned during Carolina’s ten-game march to the promised land, Ray Tanner isn’t one of those neo-hardball guys.

The statheads can have their VORP. Ray, like Casey, has his baseball philosophy measured by a different scale, albeit a four-letter one.


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