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Season Preview: Underrated Gamecocks poised to take SEC by surprise again

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Season Preview: Underrated Gamecocks poised to take SEC by surprise again

Feb. 10, 2019

SPURS & FEATHERS

A few hours before South Carolina took the field for the first workouts of 2019, the first college baseball polls were released and, for the second year in a row, the Gamecocks were not in the top 25. 

That didn’t sit well with some of the team’s veteran players, who helped the Gamecocks reach the NCAA Super Regionals last year and finish the season ranked No. 12 in the final polls. 

Season Preview: Underrated Gamecocks poised to take SEC by surprise again

But head coach Mark Kingston understood. 

“We lost everybody,” said Kingston, who must replace seven starting position players, three starting pitchers and one of his key relievers from last season. “Nobody knows what we are right now, except for the people in that room.” 

After missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years in 2017, Kingston’s first South Carolina team entered the 2018 season outside the national rankings. But led by a strong senior class and a veteran team, the Gamecocks rallied from a slow start to make the postseason and win the Greenville (N.C.) Regional. 

In his first season, Kingston took an underachieving team, reshaped the lineup, added just the right mix of motivation and guided the Gamecocks to within one game of the College World Series. 

“I reminded them of that,” Kingston said. “Right now, nobody knows anything about us. … So my message is, I don’t know if we are going to Omaha or not, but we will maximize this roster again and we will go as far as this team is capable of going and at the end we will be able to look in the mirror and say this was another building block in the program and another year of pushing this thing back where it needs to be.” 

Kingston’s other message to his team and fans is this: Don’t panic. Last year’s team was 20-17 at midseason and started 1-5 in the SEC. But the Gamecocks won 12 of their last 17 games, including five straight SEC series, to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. 

After losing five key seniors and eight players to the MLB Draft, Kingston and his staff will have to be patient and work their magic again. With 18 new players, it may take time for the new group to gel and adjust to the elite level of college baseball.

“We have so many new names, we have so many roles to figure out. We have so many guys playing at this level for the first time, so if we have some bumps in the road, it’s going to be very important to make sure we stay steady and stay the course until everything falls into place again,” Kingston said. 

The Gamecocks will have as many as five new players in the everyday lineup and must replace its entire starting rotation after the loss of Adam Hill and Cody Morris to the draft and Logan Chapman to Tommy John surgery. But the addition of eight junior-college transfers and some talented freshmen will help. 

“We have some guys who have some talent, for sure, but are going to have to grow up in a hurry,” assistant coach Mike Current said. “… If you bear with us early on and let those guys get their feet wet and start to get some experience, I think it is a group that is going to gel and start to come together and we have the ability to do pretty good.”

The Gamecocks will lean on seniors TJ Hopkins, Jacob Olson and Chris Cullen and super sophomore Noah Campbell. But they have plenty of holes to fill. Here’s a look at how the teams looks position to position. 

PITCHING

Pitching coach Skylar Meade, who led Louisville to the 2007 College World Series as a left-handed pitcher, didn’t arrive at South Carolina until after fall camp last year and had very little time to get to know his new pitching staff before the 2018 season. The former pitching coach at Michigan State has spent the past year implementing his own program and developing the new and returning hurlers. 

As preseason camp came to a close, he was pleased with what he saw from his eight returning pitchers and seven newcomers, including four talented freshmen. Though the starting rotation is still a bit of a question mark, there is more depth and more options than last season. 

“There are a lot of guys that look comfortable, they look the part, they have better breaking stuff, that is an absolute truth,” he said. “I think there are going to be more options, but we have to make sure we make the right moves with those options.”

Throwing strikes was a challenge last year as the Gamecocks walked 274 batters in 553 innings, including 14 in the two losses to Arkansas in the Super Regional. They improved that ratio significantly during the preseason. In the next-to-last scrimmage, Gamecock pitchers struck out 13 batters against just two walks. 

“I think we have a lot more feel for the strike zone with multiple pitches,” Meade said. “Last year, we didn’t have a lot of guys who could spin the baseball. I think there is a lot more of that, which is really going to benefit us as we get into bigger spots.” 

Though the rotation lacks experience, it will be backed by a deep and experienced bullpen. 

Rotation

The only sure thing entering the spring was sophomore right-hander Carmen Mlodzinski, who is expected to be the Friday night starter. Mlodzinski made 19 appearances, including seven starts, last year and compiled a 3-6 record with a 5.52 ERA with one save and 43 strikeouts in 45.2 innings. 

He has put on about 15 pounds, added a cutter as a fourth pitch and Meade calls him a “completely different cat.”

“He’s added some new things to his repertoire and is going to be a real star in this program,” he said.

“Physically, he looks much better. He looks like an SEC guy,” Kingston said. “He has a very mature calmness about him right now but is married with being a competitor. I just think everything you can grade a pitcher on has gotten better.”  

The Gamecocks had six other pitchers competing for starting spots entering spring camp, but the guy who surged ahead of the rest was freshman left-hander Dylan Harley. A late signee from Cane Bay High School in Summerville, Harley wowed coaches in his first three preseason starts and appeared to be closing in on a spot in the weekend rotation.

“He is a name not many are aware of right now, but at the end of the year, everybody will know who he is,” Kingston said. “He’s a lefty freshman with a power arm and has a very bright future in our program.” 

The third spot in the weekend rotation and the mid-week starters will come down to sophomores John Gilreath and TJ Shook and junior-college transfers Reid Morgan and Hayden Lehman. Gilreath, Shook and Morgan all pitched well throughout the preseason and were outstanding in their final starts. Lehman struggled early but was solid in his last outing. Morgan, who struck out six in four innings in his last outing, could also play a key role in the bullpen if he does not start. 

Kingston and Meade have considered using an "opener" or some starters for only two or three innings — or once through the batting order — and then turning the game over to the bullpen, much like the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s did last year. They talked to coaches of the Rays and other teams during the offseason about the new trends for managing a rotation. With a deep and strong bullpen, that strategy just might work.

“We are going to use a lot of different dudes and match guys up,” Meade said. “I think that is really going to give our staff an identity where everyone has a role. I think we will be able to do a lot of different things.”  

Bullpen 

The strength of the pitching staff may be the bullpen, which is deep and experienced. It is led by junior closer Sawyer Bridges, a bulldog who overcame a serious shoulder injury to record two wins, five saves and a 1.33 ERA last year. 

He looks even better this spring and should be a lock-down closer for the Gamecocks. 

“He just needs to stay healthy and sharp,” Kingston said. “If he does that, he’s our closer and I’ll take my chances with him every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

Senior Ridge Chapman, a power pitcher who had 36 strikeouts in 38 innings last year, also will be used in key situations, giving the Gamecocks two experienced pitchers at the back end of the bullpen. Sophomore Parker Coyne, redshirt freshman Cam Tringali and junior-college pitcher Cole Ganopulos, a left-hander, also should play key roles, while hard-throwing freshmen Wesley Sweatt and Daniel Lloyd are coming on.  

Meade vows his pitchers will compete and throw strikes.    

“We are going to pitch with a lot of emotion, passion and intensity,” he said. “These guys are going to work quick and they are going to pound the zone.”

AROUND THE HORN

Josiah Sightler was a 12th-round pick by the Cincinnati Reds but turned down a nice signing bonus to play at South Carolina. Kingston says Sightler has Justin Smoak-like power potential, and he showed it in the first preseason scrimmage, hitting a bomb over the bullpen in right-center field. 

“He’s not a finished product, but he is very talented and he has big-time power,” Kingston said. “… He’s a guy we have high hopes for.” 

Sightler is competing with sophomore Jordan Holladay at first base and the two could platoon early in the season. 

Noah Campbell, who started at DH as a freshman, will be the starting second baseman. He hit .270 with a .372 on-base percentage as a freshman but tore up the elite Cape Cod League over the summer, finishing second in the league in batting average (.364) and on-base percentage. 

Kingston says succeeding in the wooden bat league up north was a “huge step” for Campbell, a preseason All-American who is expected to lead off and ignite the Gamecock offense. 

“He had a solid first season for us, but we all know there is a lot more in the tank for him,” he said. “He came back with a much higher sense of maturity and confidence and just a feeling that he belongs now with the best in the country.” 

Junior-college transfer Nick Neville has shown good pop at the plate and is expected to be the starting shortstop. He will be backed up by George Callil, another JUCO. 

The key position in the infield is third base, where senior Jacob Olson appears to have won the third-base job after transitioning from right field. The two-year starter moved to third to help free up an outfield spot for some of the team’s new additions and spent the fall and offseason working on his infield defense.   

“I have 100 percent confidence that he can play third base well for us. Now we have to see how do the pieces around him fit,” Kingston said during spring camp. “He’s a great team player, he’ll play wherever we need him, but he’s made some really nice progress at third base.”

If Olson is needed in the outfield, Quinnten Perez, another junior-college transfer, and freshman Jonah Beamon could step in at third. Perez, Beamon and Callil give the Gamecocks three utility players who can play all over the infield.  

Outfield

Perhaps the biggest key for South Carolina is the health of centerfielder TJ Hopkins. The senior from Summerville hit .345 last season but missed 26 games with hand and back injuries. The Gamecocks were 21-9 when he was in the line-up.  

Hopkins, who has All-American potential, worked hard during the offseason to recover from the back injury and was “100 percent” healthy during preseason camp. He is on a strict pre-hab program and Kingston plans to be careful with him and monitor his practice workload to keep him healthy.

“I’m healthy and ready to roll,” said Hopkins, who had an outstanding preseason.    

“Now we just need fate to smile on us and allow him to stay healthy,” Kingston said. “If he does, he is one of the premier players in the country.” 

Hopkins will be flanked by two intriguing newcomers. Kingston calls Andrew Eyster “one of the best hitters in the country.” As a junior-college All-American, he hit .412 with 13 home runs and 53 RBI at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla. He followed that up as the MVP of the Virginia Valley League last summer, hitting .421 with 11 home runs. 

Kingston calls Eyster a “natural hitter” with “big-time pop,” which he showed when he hit the scoreboard during batting practice during the preseason. 

“He’s a guy that will definitely have a major impact for us this year,” Kingston said.  

Brady Allen, who was drafted by the Yankees out of high school, was one of the team’s most impressive freshmen in the fall and carried it over into the preseason. He was one of three newcomers (along with Eyster) to homer in the first preseason scrimmage. 

Kingston calls Allen, who will play right field, a “gamer.” 

“He’s a kid who loves to play the game and works really hard. He’s got a chance to be an impact player for us.” 

Catchers

The Gamecocks have three catchers who could all play but Cullen is the key. After suffering a knee injury as a sophomore — he had surgery near the end of the 2016 season — he has battled injuries the last two years and struggled last year, hitting just .190. 

He worked rigorously during the offseason, dropped 25 pounds and had an impressive preseason, leading the Gamecocks in hitting. Kingston hopes he will have the type of senior season he got from senior Hunter Taylor last year. 

“Chris knows this is his last go-around,” he said. “He knows it’s do well now or maybe baseball is over, so he has made a major commitment physically to get himself in the best shape he has ever been in and by far the best shape I have seen him since I have been here.” 

Luke Berryhill hit .376 with 13 home runs and 45 RBI last year to help lead Walters State to a 60-8 record and the junior-college World Series. He led the Gamecocks in home runs in the fall and hit another in the first spring scrimmage. He is expected to split time with Cullen and be the regular DH when he is not catching. 

“He’s a big, strong kid that gives you good at-bats and can hit a home run at any time,” Kingston said. 

Freshman Wes Clarke, a high school All-American and the Virginia Player of the Year, has shown good power but needs time to develop defensively. 

Lineup

The Gamecocks should have a nice mix of speed and power. A big question entering the season is who will hit leadoff and who will bat in the middle of the order. Campbell and Hopkins can both lead off, while Eyster and Berryhill look like middle-of-the-order hitters. 

Here’s a look at what the opening day lineup could look like: 

2B Campbell

SS Neville

CF Hopkins

LF Eyster

DH Berryhill

3B Olson

C Cullen

1B Sightler/Holladay

RF Allen

The Gamecocks hit .279 as a team and blasted 79 home runs in 63 games last year. Kingston believes this year’s group could have just as much power, it just may take awhile for it to develop.  

“Power has always been a part of this program, it’s something that I value very much,” he said. “We think the raw power among our offensive players is very similar to last year, just how often will they be able to do it in games?” 

With a host of new players and plenty of question marks, South Carolina is being overlooked entering the season. But that’s just fine with Kingston. He proved last year that preseason expectations mean very little. 

“I think we have a shot,” he said. “We are going to have to earn it on the field every day again, but we’ll just see. At this point, I couldn’t care less about the polls. As a coach, I can use it as motivation for our guys to keep that chip on their shoulder and we’ll see what happens.” 

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