Story originally published in the Hometown News,
reprinted with permission
By Leon Russ
Published: Wednesday, July 14, 2010
As the Spartanburg Blue Eagles make their final push for the Western Division crown and the number one seed in the Southern Collegiate Baseball League (SCBL) four USC Upstate buddies are enjoying the ride and playing a big part in the team's success.
Pitcher/first baseman Gaither Bumgardner, shortstop Brody Greer, closer Chris Knauff, and outfielder Tyler Miller may not be the "Fantastic Four," you might call them the "Upstate Four," but Blue Eagle Head Coach Ryan Thomas is glad to have them.
Bumgardner and Knauff have performed to All Star levels and were recently selected to play in the SCBL All Star game held at Wofford's Russell C. King Field on Wednesday.
Greer and Miller have played nearly to that level as well. Greer has been a steady influence at short all summer long and Miller has contributed mightily when he starts.
Knauff noted they all were approached separately about playing for the Blue Eagles "but the fact that it was the four of us, we all talked and agreed it would be a good idea."
Miller recalls the decision being made more as a group noting, "Me, Gaither and Brody lived together all (freshman) year and we built a trust between each other. We just thought it would be good, all of us playing together this summer (and) build on that connection for the next three years."
Greer stated, "It helped a lot (knowing they were coming). We already have chemistry."
It may have been the biggest help to him as when he picks a ball at short he knows waiting at first is Bumgardner who stands 6' 6". "I feel pretty comfortable with him at first, I know where he's going to be. It just makes it comfortable throwing over there."
Bumgardner said the decision to stay in Spartanburg and play summer ball with his fellow Spartans was a "stress free decision. We could (continue) to live in our apartments and it was a good situation."
In addition to manning first Bumgardner has had fine summer on the mound as well, going 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA for the birds.
Miller echoes Bumgardner saying staying in Spartanburg made for a smooth transition as the four didn't have to move to a new apartment and were comfortable with the people around them.
Knauff said the choice to stay in Spartanburg, especially after his three teammates agreed to play, was an easy one. "It gave me a chance to improve and I already know the area," he said.
The four just finished their freshman year at USC Upstate and believe sticking together on the field this summer will pay dividends as well.
Bumgardner said it's a good situation on the field since "we already knew the signals and calls when a runner's on, so it made it an easy transition."
Winning is enjoyable
All four are enjoying winning after scuffling through a difficult season with the Spartans. Knauff admitted, "We took our lumps" in the spring at Upstate "and it got very demoralizing after a while."
In addition to improving individually Knauff believes having the four of them play together over the summer will ultimately pay dividends when they return to Upstate. "All of us playing together will make us more comfortable, more than we already were, going into next season (at Upstate)."
Knauff said he wanted to play summer ball because as a reliever he needs all the work he can get.
His prayers were answered as Thomas has seen him evolve into his closer. Thomas stated, "He's definitely someone I trust with the game on the line late in the game." Looking at Knauff's numbers that include a 1.88 ERA and seven saves it's easy to see why he earned Thomas' trust.
With the Blue Eagles fighting for the top spot in the SCBL's western division Knauff admits "It's more fun coming to the ball park everyday" than it was at Upstate. "We have a positive mindset and the confidence that we can go out there and win everyday."
Greer agreed saying, "It's awesome coming to the park everyday knowing you have a chance to win."
Miller added being in a winning environment "is a great feeling. I think it gives us all confidence to come out here and relax, not have to press. It's a relaxed atmosphere, we just have fun."
Returning to Upstate
It's an attitude they all want to take back to Upstate with them. That winning attitude "is definitely something we can pass on to our teammates and the new guys coming in to Upstate," Knauff said.
Miller said, "My goal is to bring this fun atmosphere back to everybody at Upstate. I hope I can teach them the things I learned my freshman year as well."
Greer agreed, "Hopefully we can carry it over and try to take this atmosphere there."
Speaking of Upstate Knauff added, "We have the talent and ability to win more ballgames than we've shown. They have to understand that each day is a new opportunity to go out there and make the most of it and try to win games."
Bumgardner added winning with the birds "feels really good. It's something we have to do at school as well. I definitely don't want to go through another year like we went through last year. So having a winning attitude and being positive is key."
Wood versus Metal
They were all asked about the difference between playing with a wooden bat versus aluminum.
Knauff noted with a wood bat "it brings out the true hitters. With a metal bat you can make a good pitch and they can still hit you hard. With a wood bat you can be aggressive in the strike zone."
Greer said, "Everything's harder offensively. Defensively, balls aren't hit as hard, but it's about the same."
Miller seems to enjoy the game more playing with a wood bat. "It's how the game should be played," he said. "You don't get the cheap hits like you do with an aluminum bat. I've learned to bunt more with a wood bat. The metal bat provides the thrill of the homerun but wood provides a game everybody can play."
While Miller "enjoyed my summer here" he adds he can't be certain he'll be back next year." He equated it to a professional player moving up through the minor leagues noting, "Everyone wants to play in the CPL (Coastal Plain League), but who knows, I might be back here."
Speaking for the "Upstate Four," Miller summed up, "I think we've enjoyed being together this summer."
The only way it could be more enjoyable would be for the "Upstate Four" to walk away with the SCL championship.