HOOVER, Ala. — Steven Neff has never been one to cut up during the game or on the practice field. The redshirt junior has been rather business-like during his South Carolina career.
So when coach Ray Tanner came to him around a month ago and asked him what he would think of picking up a bat and maybe playing a little designated hitter/outfield, plus remaining a top part of the pitching staff, Neff figured his coach wasn't kidding.
"I was quick to respond," Neff said, just before the then top-ranked Gamecocks began the SEC tournament. "Yeah, I was excited about it. When he asked me, I was excited he would give me the chance." USC is excited he took it.
As the Gamecocks prepare to enter the NCAA regionals next week, Neff has become the wild-card addition to their lineup. Considered the fourth option for all-important starting pitching in the postseason, plus a situational reliever in a lengthy game, Neff has also found new homes at the plate and in the field.
In a year unlike any other of Tanner's 15 years at USC, player after player has gone down with an injury, particularly among the outfielders. With center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. still out with a torn ligament in his left wrist and right fielder Adam Matthews gimpy from a strained hamstring, the Gamecocks needed an extra body.
Tanner turned to Neff, knowing the put-together Lancaster native had been a legitimate two-way player when he reported to the Gamecocks out of high school. Although eyebrows were raised when Neff stood in for the first time at DH, and mouths began to howl when Neff struck out with some particularly vicious cuts, another of Tanner's decisions eventually paid off.
Neff, after no plate appearances in three collegiate seasons, is hitting .260 for USC as it seeks to return to the College World Series. The former Lancaster High School standout has 13 hits, nine for extra bases, with six RBIs.
The power has been the biggest surprise. At one time, Neff had four home runs in 14 at-bats. Those four, the first of his career, were the most by any Gamecock in SEC play this year.
"It's not always to try to hit a home run," Neff explained. "If you've got a man on second, yeah, I'm trying to pull it and get the guy over. Lot of times, it's situational stuff.
"But every time I get a chance to, I see a ball in, it's early in the count, I'll swing for it."
Two balls rocketed over the fence in a 7-1 win over Arkansas on May 15. His round-tripper at Alabama on May 21 helped provide an early 2-0 lead that became a 3-2 win to clinch the SEC regular-season championship.
The success made him a heavy consideration for the SEC tournament as well. He was scheduled to be USC's starting pitcher in Game 1 before ace Michael Roth asked for and received the ball. Neff started at DH instead. He did the same in Game 2 and was 1-for-4 with a single.
"He was a two-way guy out of high school," Tanner said. "But he got hurt, and when he got better he wanted to stick to pitching and we certainly supported that. But his athleticism never went away."
The highest drafted player last summer to return to USC, Neff stuck to pitching and got as strong as he could for what he figured to be his contract season. He made the starting rotation, then fell out as lingering bicep tenderness derailed him, but began making a comeback on the hill.
Then Tanner asked him to pick up a bat, and he obliged. That it fell into place that quickly was a surprise to everyone but Tanner and Neff.
"Once I was 100 percent, I said during the fall, I wanted to stick to pitching," Neff said. "I had a goal set for myself as a pitcher and once this year comes along, he gives me an opportunity to bat again, so I said, 'All right.' I've always hit. None of the talent's gone away."
Now to just get him out of trying to homer on every pitch. Forgive him, but when Neff has more homers in conference play than team heavyweight Christian Walker, it elevates the excitement.
"Tanner keeps my head straight," Neff said through a grin. "He tells you, 'You need a hit, hit a line drive, don't try to swing for the fence, you need to move this runner over.'
"But I just keep working. Every chance I get. Just got to win."