5 for 5 with Baseball Coach Mark Kingston
From USC Sports Information | GCF Staff Report
Feb. 08, 2019
Spend five minutes checking out five storylines for the Gamecocks as they prepare for the 2019 season.
South Carolina baseball will have lots of new faces on the field this year, but after getting to within one game of the College World Series in Mark Kingston's first year as head coach of the Gamecocks last year, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic in 2019. With the loss of many starters from last year, figuring out how to fill out the lineup card will make for great competition.
"Losing our catcher, third baseman, shortstop, second baseman, first baseman, right fielder, and DH; that's a lot of spots to fill," Kingston said. "We need to see who is ready for which roles, but we have a lot of talented guys who are waiting for their turn. Now it's a matter of getting them out there and finding out where they fit in the order, who can play every day, who is going to platoon, and who is ready to handle a big crowd in the stands. You don't know until you actually get out there on the field and see them."
With that in mind, Gamecocksonline.com sat down with Coach Kingston to chat about a few of the top storylines for South Carolina baseball in the preseason.
Leadership and the Health
Six starting position players and six pitchers are gone from last year due to graduation and professional baseball, but the cupboard at South Carolina is not empty. With a year under their belts in Columbia, Kingston and his staff feel good about the leadership they have seen from returning players so far.
"All the seniors are trying to be good leaders; whether it's T.J. Hopkins (.345, 24 RBI, 14 SB), Jacob Olson (.234, 12 HR, 36 RBI), or Chris Cullen (.190, 3 HR, 15 RBI)," Kingston said. "(Junior) Sawyer Bridges (2-1, 1.35 ERA, 5 saves) is a really good leader for us from the pitching staff. (Sophomore) Carmen Mlodzinski (3-6, 1 save) tries to lead by example, and (sophomore) Noah Campbell (.270, 3HR, 13 RBI) leads by example as well. We don't name captains. We just try to promote leadership from within."
Hopkins, a senior outfielder who battled various injuries last year, is the type of player that Kingston says brings a little of everything to the table, and when healthy, is capable of being one of the top college players in the country.
"Speed, power, defense, leadership. Everything. He's a five-tool player," Kingston said. "I think he's made the commitment to try to stay healthy. There are some things that are out of your hands, but in terms of getting healthy and doing the things it takes to stay healthy, he's where he needs to be. If he stays healthy, he's one of the premier players in the country."
Transitions from Rookie Year
Adjusting to playing at the college level can be difficult and seeing how those players mature in year two can be a difference-maker. Versatile infielder Noah Campbell put together a solid freshman season and is a preseason All-America selection heading into this year. After playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox last summer (.364, 6 HR, 26 RBI), the coaching staff is excited about his emergence in 2019.
"He was nearly the MVP in the Cape Cod League last summer," Kingston said. "Noah is going to be a better defender. He's improving every day on defense. As a hitter, he got his feet wet last year getting used to this level of competition. I think the Cape Cod League was another big step in improving his confidence. That did a tremendous amount to help his progress.
"It was a huge step in his development. That does a lot for his physical development, just in playing that kind of competition. He came back with a much higher sense of maturity, confidence and feeling that he belongs now with the best in the country. That's invaluable. When our guys go off to play summer ball and have that type of success, without fail, they are really able to build on that the following year."
Pitchers Mlodzinski, John Gilreath (24 g, 4.28 ERA), T.J. Shook (21 g,3-0, 2.33 ERA), and Parker Coyne (19 g, 1-1, 3.18 ERA) made an impact as freshmen last year, while gaining valuable experience as well.
More Depth on the Pitching Staff
With two of the three regular weekend starting pitchers gone from last year, Kingston and pitching coach Skylar Meade will give new and returning players and opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation.
"We'll have more depth on the pitching staff, and we should have a lot more options," Kingston said. "Some of the guys we're looking at as potential starters are going to be Carmen Mlodzinski, Hayden Lehman (junior transfer from Walters State CC), Dylan Harley, a freshman, potentially (sophomore) John Gilreath, potentially senior Ridge Chapman, and sophomore T.J. Shook has made nice progress."
The staff has also done a lot of research into different ways Major League Baseball teams are forming their pitching staffs. Kingston noted that the coaches may have a different approach to the pitching staff in 2019.
"We're going to have to be creative with how we use our pitching. We may use starters shorter than normal to get to our bullpen and put guys in more match-ups," Kingston said. "We've done a lot of research this winter with Major League Baseball teams and how they're using pitchers. We're going to try to be as cutting edge as we can.
"What we're trying to do is study what the latest strategies are for winning games. We talked to a number of Major League teams in trying to pick their brains in how you use pitchers and how you look for the best matchups. The traditional left-right and right-left has been done for a long time. Now, it's number of pitches. Now, it's number of times through the order. There are a million different ways to try to tilt the advantage to your side. That's all we want to do. We want to make sure we are up to speed with every possible way to give ourselves a little better chance to win, whether that's how you match up in the fifth inning or how many times your starter goes through the batting order."
In terms of some teams "working backwards" with handling their pitching staff, Kingston noted that it depends on your personnel as to how you can set up a staff and rotation.
"If you're balanced where a lot of guys are similar, and it's hard to tell who the best are, you might use them differently and use them for three innings at a time instead of five innings at time so that you always have a fresh arm out there," Kingston said. "There are a lot of creative ways and you just have to marry a certain strategy to the type of pitching staff you have."
Where the Newcomers Fit In
"One of the things to look forward to is the excitement of learning a lot about a large number of new players, where you could potentially have new starters at seven positions at any one time," Kingston said. "Last year you had a new coaching staff trying to learn everything with a veteran team. This year we have a lot of new players trying to figure everything out, with us trying to learn about those players. We don't have as many veterans. Every year there is learning, whether it's by players or coaches. It's just a matter of learning as many lessons as you can quickly."
South Carolina fans are passionate about their baseball. Kingston and his staff have high expectations as well, but they prefer to stay focused on working hard and working intelligently towards their goals.
"You need to stay focused on the things that really matter," Kingston said. "If you're distracted by anything else, it's counter-productive. You need to understand that playing in the SEC, there are going to be ups and downs. Sometimes you're going to get the lucky bounces, sometimes you're not. You have to stay as even-keeled as you can because that's what these kids need from their leadership.
"With the Clemson series, everybody wants to win it. Every coach, every player, and every fan wants to win it. I wouldn't say we learned anything new, but we had the chance to see it with our own eyes as to what that passion is, and it's a great thing."
Continued Growth of the Culture
Keeping South Carolina among the college baseball elite is always an expectation, and in order to have a championship mindset, Kingston and his staff work hard to create a consistent culture in every phase of the program. He expects that to carry over into year two.
"The three words we have for them in the locker room are preparation, toughness, and discipline," Kingston said. "Everything we do feeds off those three words, whether it's in baseball or outside of it. If you use those three words to guide you, I think you'll have a lot success. That's what we want our culture to be, whether it's in the classroom, on the field, or in life. If you prepare for things well, if you have discipline in how you approach your job, and you have toughness – physical and mental, you're going to give yourself your best chance for success."
While every year is a new season, Kingston likes what he saw from last year's team in overcoming early adversity to finish strong and make a great run in the postseason.
"There are going to be tough times over the course of the season," Kingston said. "There are going to be some bad days. It doesn't define you. You just have to keep working on the things that matter. You have to focus on what your process is and don't panic. We have so many new names and new roles to figure out, and so many guys playing at this level for the first time. So, if we have some bumps in the road, it's very important that we stay steady and stay the course until everything falls into place again."
South Carolina baseball season opens at Founders Park on Friday, February 15 against Liberty.