If you’re a baseball fan, there’s no better day than Opening Day.
For pure baseball fans, this time of year means pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training and the major league season is just six weeks away. But if you really love baseball — and what Gamecock fan doesn’t? — Opening Day of the college season is just as special. It means you don’t have to wait six more weeks to see your favorite team play.
Opening Day at Founders Park has everything we love about the Grand Old Game.
The sight and smell of the green grass on an immaculate field, promising that spring is just around the corner.
The red, white and blue bunting hanging around the stadium, a throwback to the game’s glory days and fitting for America’s National Pastime.
The buzz of the crowd as fans file into the ballpark, wearing their garnet and black gear and stopping one more time to cherish the two national championship trophies encased near the main entrance.
The parking lots filled with tailgaters, another sign that this a big day and a big game. The smell of burgers and dogs cooking on the grill.
Popcorn, Cracker Jacks and, for the first time at Founders Park, cold beer.
It’s always a glorious day as fans begin to dream of the warm days of April, May and, if tradition holds true, the Gamecocks playing well into June.
Head coach Mark Kingston can't wait for Friday, which he calls "a magical day."
“If you love baseball, those are magical words. Whether it's big-league baseball or little league baseball, college baseball, Opening Day makes the hair on your arms stand up," he said. "You love it ... you love the gates opening for the first time, you love to look at our stadium and see the bunting all over like it’s the major league playoffs. You just love everything about it.
"As a baseball guy, I love this time of year."
South Carolina fans have a lot to look forward to in 2020, and it all begins on Friday afternoon.
Here’s some things I can’t wait to see on Opening Day and the first weekend of the season.
• Carmen Mlodzinski’s fastball. His velocity has been steadily rising the past two years and is now on the verge of fireball status.
After a fabulous summer in the Cape Code League, Mlodzinski returned to campus throwing harder than ever, his velocity soaring almost as fast as his draft stock. He was consistently in the 94-95 range during fall and spring scrimmages and we’ve heard rumors of 98, which have brought big-league scouts flocking to Founders Park.
I can’t wait to see the number on the radar gun when he finally airs it out and let’s go of his best pitch.
• Noah Myers’ speed. The fastest player on the team, South Carolina’s new center fielder can flat-out fly, running the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. He stole an astounding 77 bases in junior-college, which is likely not replicable in the SEC, but still, the dude can run.
Head coach Mark Kingston says Myers will have the green light when he’s on base, so I can’t wait to see what kind of havoc he creates on the basepaths. I also can’t wait to see him race from home to third on a ball hit in the gap. And I’ll go ahead and predict that he collects at least one inside-the-park home run this season, perhaps even on Opening Day.
• Who’s on second? Kingston has a nice but complicated problem to solve with three second basemen who all deserve to start.
Junior Noah Campbell, last year’s starter, returns with high expectations. He had another great summer in the Cape Cod League and is a preseason All-American and All-SEC pick for the second straight year. He performed well in fall and spring scrimmages, a good sign for one of the most talented players in the country.
But so did junior-college transfer Jeff Heinrich and freshman Braylen Wimmer, who were both stellar defensively and showed they can handle the bat. Heinrich ripped line drives all over the ballpark in the first two weeks of spring practice and Wimmer played so well Kingston called him one of the best players on the field.
So what to do on Opening Day?
Kingston hinted Friday that Heinrich or Wimmer might start at second, but wouldn't reveal where Campbell might play.
Campbell got some work in left field during spring practice and could start there, though that would push right fielder Brady Allen to the bench, and he also had a good preseason.
It’s a nice problem for a coach to have. I’m anxious to see how it plays out. I wouldn’t be surprised if all three get a start on opening weekend.
• The heart of the order. While Myers or Campbell could give Carolina a dangerous leadoff hitter, I’m anxious to see how the middle of the order shakes out.
The Gamecocks have multiple hitters who can hit the long ball and provide a solid power source. Andrew Eyster hit 10 home runs last year and will probably bat third or fourth. Grad transfers Dallas Beaver (12) and Bryant Bowen (11) both hit double-digit home runs last season and also figure to be in the middle of the order. Allen, Brennan Milone and first baseman Wes Clarke also have big-time power.
The Gamecocks hit 75 home runs last year, fourth-best in the SEC. With a potentially deeper and and more powerful lineup, they could top that number this season.
I’m interested to see how Kingston lines up his power hitters. The Opening Day lineup could look something like this:
• Baffling Brett Kerry. South Carolina’s sophomore right-hander is fun to watch because he pounds the strike zone, doesn’t waste time or pitches and catches hitters off guard. At 5-11 and 211 pounds, he is not a particularly imposing figure on the mound, but he has a bulldog mentality and is as aggressive as any pitcher you will see.
Kerry, who will start on Saturday, goes right after hitters, gets ahead in the count and makes batters hit his pitch. He’s efficient and quick. No pace of play complaints when he’s on the mound. When he’s on, there’s barely time to hit the concession stand.
• The top prospect. One of the most fun things about spring training is following the young, hot prospect trying to make the team or crack the starting lineup, bringing promises of big things to come.
South Carolina has one of those prospects in Milone. The freshman third baseman, a 28th-round pick by the Dodgers last summer, has been impressive since the day he first stepped on the field.
Rated the No. 9 impact freshman in the SEC, Milone has quickly emerged as one of the Gamecock’s best hitters. He has hit some prodigious home runs, shown a knack for driving in runs and has made some spectacular plays in the field.
It will be exciting to watch Milone develop this season and see how he fares against the best pitching in the country.
• By George. George Callil attracted national attention last season when he made a leaping grab of a hard-hit line drive against Auburn. It was just one of many spectacular plays by the slick-fielding shortstop.
A former cricket player from Austrailia, Callil is as smooth as any infielder in the country. With rare size (6-4, 180 pounds) for a shortstop, he seems to glide across the infield, making routine plays look simple and hard plays look routine. He’s so good defensively he could hit his weight and still stay in the everyday lineup.
I can’t wait to see what Callil has in store for his next great play.
• Small ball. While the Gamecocks should have plenty of power, they won’t hesitate to lay down a bunt. Kingston believes he has more advanced, consistent hitters this year, giving the team a more balanced attack.
The Gamecocks won’t sit back and wait for the long ball. They will look to manufacture runs by moving runners, hitting the opposite way, being aggressive on the basepaths and executing hit-and-runs. And for the first time in a while, the bunt won’t be a foreign concept. In one spring scrimmage, the Gamecocks perfectly executed three bunts, two for infield hits.
While there should be plenty of balls flying over the fence, Carolina will also have a bit of an old-school approach, providing more opportunities for big innings and an explosvie attack. Perhaps they will even look a bit like those Ray Tanner teams that strung together three consecutive College World Series appearances.
That’s what makes Opening Day and the start of a new season fun. It’s a time for dreams, when hope springs eternal.