Photo: Victoria Richman / The Daily Gamecock

The power of three: Bullpen trio embraces versatility

The classical principle "good things come in threes" suggests that triads are naturally endowed with qualities of balance and completeness.

In art, sports and business, talent is also optimized in threesomes. J.K. Rowling built a multi-billion dollar franchise around the bond between Harry, Ron and Hermione. Constructing a "Big Three" has become the blueprint for success in the NBA, with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers all following that model to a championship. "Culture," a product of the Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos, currently sits atop the Billboard 200.

The rule also applies to baseball, particularly when it comes to building a formidable bullpen. It is always good to have a lights-out closer waiting in the wings at the end of a game, but the most iconic bullpens are always based on trios of high-leverage relievers. The 1990 Cincinnati Reds famously leaned on Norm Charlton, Ron Dibble and Randy Meyers, dubbed the "Nasty Boys," to win a World Series. They are often regarded as the greatest bullpen in the history of the sport. More recently, the Kansas City Royals reached back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015 with their own threesome known as HDH. Last season, the New York Yankees briefly created perhaps the most dominant bullpen ever assembled, with Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Bentances, before breaking up the group at the trade deadline. 

Finding three reliable relievers is easier said than done; statistically the performance of relievers is the most volatile of any position from one season to the next. While South Carolina's trio of weekend starters will continue to garner the most attention with pundits, the team's most valuable asset might be the combination of veteran relievers Tyler Johnson, Reed Scott and Josh Reagan closing out the backend of games. 

In many ways, the trio doesn't represent the typical super-bullpen of flamethrowers. Each pitcher has a unique but complimentary style paired with a willingness to be used in a variety of roles. Johnson, a junior who closed games for the Collegiate National Team last summer, is the prototypical closer with a fastball that can touch 98-mph and a imposing physical presence on the mound.

Reagan and Scott, both seniors and longtime roommates, do not possess the same physical gifts as Johnson. Reagan is a southpaw who generates swings and misses with a tumbling changeup and stellar command. Scott has never boasted a premium fastball, but induces weak contact from a deceptively low arm-slot that creates natural sink on his pitches. 

"We got guys that can light-up the radar gun, and we got guys that can spot-up and get ground balls," Reagan said.

As opposing lineups make multiple turns through the order, the transition from power-pitchers like starters Wil Crowe and Clarke Schmidt to more unconventional options like Reagan and Scott, and then back to the hard-throwing Johnson can create a disruptive change of pace. 

"You can have the best starters in the nation or the best pen in the nation," Reagan said. "I believe we have both."

After a disappointing sophomore season, Reagan began 2016 by converting 11 saves in as many opportunities, before blowing a save against Florida on April 29. At the time, Reagan was the SEC's leader in saves, and while Holbrook often refrained from using the closer label on Reagan, Johnson began to get more opportunities in the ninth inning as the season progressed. Reagan would adapt to a more flexible role, setting Johnson up and often working multiple innings.

Perhaps no outing was more reflective of Reagan's character and ability to make sacrifices than his six-out shutout save on April 6 over Coastal Carolina, who went on to win the College World Series. Reagan held the Chanticleer's potent lineup hitless during a painful window where he was in-between passing two kidney stones. 

The trio's willingness to log innings in any situation allows coach Chad Holbrook and associate coach Jerry Meyers to employ their relievers based on the situation of the game rather than on arbitrarily defined one-inning roles. 

"Me personally, I believe Tyler Johnson is our closer," Scott said. "We all know that we could come in any role. All of us could pitch in the third inning through the ninth inning."

"It makes us so dangerous — that we are kind of a selfless pen," Scott said. "It not just us three, it goes deeper than that."

Scott and Reagan were honored as managers of the Garnet & Black World Series, a three-game intersquad set that marks the culmination of South Carolina's fall scrimmages. Both assumed the responsibility of setting lineups and making in-game tactical moves. The opportunity also added another spark to the friendly rivalry between the roommates. 

"I have a whole new respect for Coach Holbrook and at the same time I still have a little chip on my shoulder from losing — especially to Josh Reagan," Scott said. 

"If you are talking about the weight room in particular, we [Reagan and Scott] might not be the strongest ones in there, but we definitely are the loudest," Reagan said.

Reagan and Scott are not the only leaders on South Carolina's staff, and while they might not be the strongest members of the team, the third member of the trio could probably make that claim. 

"The model that all of our young pitchers should watch is Tyler Johnson — from the way that he works, what he does in the weight room, his preparation — how committed he is to being the best pitcher he can be," said Holbrook. 

Johnson, named a First Team Preseason All-American by, is regarded as one of the most electric bullpen arms in the country. After recording 59 strikeouts in 52 innings and holding batters to a .187 average last spring, Johnson represented South Carolina pitching for Team USA in Los Angeles, Taipei City, Tokyo and Cuba this past summer. 

While many view Johnson as the undisputed closer, he has also demonstrated the capability to be a front-line starter. Holbrook has joked in the past that he would consider him for a Friday night role if not for a crowded weekend rotation. With the Gamecocks facing elimination in NCAA tournament last season, Johnson made his only start of the season, winning a complete-game victory while compiling 11 strikeouts. He had pitched in relief just two days before.

"I am open to anything," Johnson said. "Whatever outs they want me to get, I'll get."

That Gamecocks will effectively look to shorten games this season. Getting the ball to Scott, Reagan and Johnson will be critical, because their roles are malleable and can be adjusted on the fly. When they inherent a lead, they will be in a strong position to protect it. Their flexibility and collective depth allows them to work in optimal situations. 

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