Ray Tanner still doesn’t know how first baseman Christian Walker played in the 2011 College World Series with a broken hamate bone in his left wrist.
But he knows Adrian Morales had something to do with it.
Walker, who helped lead the Gamecocks to back-to-back national championships and three straight appearances in the College World Series finals, suffered the injury during South Carolina’s third-round win over Virginia. Going into the finals against Florida, it looked like Walker would not be able to play in the championship series.
As the team boarded their bus to head back to the hotel after an off-day practice, the mood was subdued as players realized their best hitter might not be available.
But Morales, the Gamecocks’ fiery third baseman and emotional leader, was having none of that.
“Walker was sitting a couple of seats behind me and Adrian gets on the bus and kinda looks around and he didn’t like it. And he unloads on Walker,” Tanner said. “‘What’s going on here, you’re going to play. Are you kidding me? You’re going to play. I know you are hurt, but you are going to play anyway.’
“I even had to say, ‘Adrian, cool it, man. C’mon, the guy had a hamate bone break.’ And he said, ‘this is the national championship, he is going to play.’
“It’s just amazing. To this day, I don’t know how the kid played. … Christian Walker was a tough young man, make no mistake about it. But Adrian, he was not having it. [He said], ‘We’ve got to go into battle and we’re taking our soldiers with us, let’s go.’”
Walker not only played in the championship series, but came up big just like he did all season. The sophomore first baseman was 2-for-5 and scored the winning run in a 2-1 win over Florida in Game 1 and went 2-for-4 in a 5-2 win in the national title game. After hitting .358 during the regular season, Walker was named to the College World Series All-Tournament team for the second straight year.
Tanner gives partial credit to Morales, a player he says “hated losing more than he loved winning.”
“He could be having a bad day, but it didn’t take away from the fact that he wanted to win and he expected you to do your part because he might not be having his best day,” Tanner said. “He was infectious.”
As one of the team’s “grinders,” Morales played a big role on both the 2010 and 2011 national championship teams. In 2010, he hit .273 with nine home runs and 56 RBI and was named the MVP of the NCAA Columbia Regional. A year later, he hit .281 with three home runs, 16 doubles and 40 RBI as the Gamecocks won their second straight national title.
While he may not have been the best player on the team, no one played harder and pushed his teammates harder than Morales, a junior-college transfer who took over at third base as a junior. Tanner is not surprised that players like Morales and second baseman Scott Wingo are now college coaches.
“You are talking about two smart baseball players,” he said. “They liked being around the game. Morales loved playing baseball. He wasn’t the best practice player in the world, but he loved the games. He loved the competition. He put his work in, but he loved the games and he understood it.”
Tanner says no one on his team questioned him and his decisions more than Morales, especially when it came to game strategy and fundamentals like bunting.
“Why are you thinking this, whey are you doing that? Why did you make that move, why did you make this move? He would always question me,” Tanner said. “‘Why? Why are you thinking like that, why are we doing this drill? Because you are never going to do this.’”
Morales hated bunting, and when Tanner would call for him to bunt, he would often step out of the batter’s box and look at his head coach, who would wind up having to explain to him why he was being asked to bunt.
“Every time he would give me a bunt sign, he would call timeout and try to explain to me why,” Morales said. “He would always tell me, ‘play the percentages.’”
Morales remembers a game against Ole Miss when Tanner asked him to bunt in the seventh inning of a 9-5 game.
“I called timeout and before the at-bat, he said, ‘If this guy gets on base, you are going to bunt him over.’ And I go, ‘Why? I’ve got five RBI in two games, I’m your hottest guy right now. Why am I going to bunt, we are up four?’
“He said, ‘OK, look at the big board. You are hitting .280 on the year and right now in the game you are 2-for-3. That means that your average in the game is higher than your normal average, so the percentages are, you are going to ground into a double play, and I don’t want that. So let’s bunt it down the line and make the third baseman come field it so we can get second and third.’ I go, ‘OK, I’m not happy … but I am doing it for my teammates because I want to win.’”
Tanner, of course, turned out to be right.
Said Morales: “I bunt the ball down the third-base line, the third baseman goes to cover third, the pitcher can’t get it, and I get a bunt base hit. I get back to the dugout and he said, ‘I just raised your average.’”
Morales now makes similar decisions as the head coach at Miami Dade and teaches his own players how to bunt and play the percentages.
“Play the percentages stuck with me til this day and it has helped me so much in making decisions on the field of whether to bunt a guy or let a guy swing away. It’s helped a lot,” he said.
In his first season as head coach, Miami Dade was 17-6 when its season was canceled due to the coronavirus. His second-leading hitter was former Gamecock Ian Jenkins, who was hitting .373 with a team-leading five home runs and 15 RBI.
Tanner is not surprised that Morales has become a successful head coach.
“Players will take on the personalty of their coach,” he said. “When you play for someone like Adrian Morales, he likes to win and he loves to compete. If you are going to be around him as a player, that is going to be infectious.”
Morales gives much of the credit to his head coach and his time at South Carolina. He still watches DVDs of games from the 2010 and 2011 seasons, especially games when he had a big day.
“It kinda keeps me there, back to 2010,” he said. “I love that stuff. Those were the best times of our lives.”
While most players on the 2010 team remember Tanner’s tirade after the Gamecocks early-season loss to East Carolina, Morales credits his head coach for motivating him going into the postseason.
Morales was 2-for-21 in the final regular-season series against Florida and in two losses in the SEC Tournament. Prior to the Columbia Regional, Tanner called him into his office.
“He pointed at the white board where it said 2-for-21 with however many strikeouts and guys left on base and he showed me all the bad things I had been doing. And he said, ‘You need to pick it up, look at your numbers,’” Morales said. “I remember almost arguing with him, ‘do you think I am trying to get out?’ And he just reiterated that you need to pick it up, ‘let’s go.’ And that was all I needed.
“At practice, his voice in my head was, ‘you need to pick it up,’ and I wanted to kinda show him up, in a sense. I had been a leader, I had led the team in RBIs. I am going to show you what I can do.”
Morales did, homering in all three Regional games to earn Regional MVP.
“He just knew how to motivate guys in different ways,” Morales said. “He did that, and that motivated me. Maybe a pat on the back wouldn’t have helped. I needed that.”
While South Carolina took the nation by surprise when it won the 2010 College World Series, the Gamecocks were dominant in 2011. Led by Morales, Wingo and stars like Walker, Jackie Bradley Jr. and starting pitcher Michael Roth, the Gamecocks were 55-14 and won the SEC with a 22-8 record. They were 15-5 against Top-25 teams.
“From a team standpoint, we were almost … arrogant,” Morales said. “We knew every game going in that we were the favorite and you had to come and beat us. We knew that, but we still played with a sense of hunger and a grinder’s mentality, because that was ultimately what we were. We were just a little bit more cocky now, a little bit more trash-talking now. It almost felt like we had a mental edge on the competition when we played because of what we had done in 2010.”
While the 2010 national championship was a surprise with the Gamecocks reeling off six straight wins after the opening-round loss to Oklahoma, the 2011 team played with a swagger and confidence that proved unbeatable. The Gamecocks won 10 straight games en route to a second straight national championship and didn’t lose a postseason game until the finals of the 2012 College World Series.
“In 2010, it was crazy, it wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “The second year, we didn’t lose, we were never down. We didn’t lose the whole postseason, so it was almost kinda business-like. It was pretty cool.”