Editor's Note: This article appears in the November issue of Spurs & Feathers magazine. To subscribe, visit here.
When a bone snapped in his foot against Clemson last March, South Carolina pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski was not surprised.
His left foot had been bothering him all spring and the sophomore right-hander suspected he had a stress fracture. But instead of telling his coaches, the Gamecocks’ Friday night starter tried to pitch through it. It finally snapped in the third inning of his third start of the season, against South Carolina’s arch-rival.
“That’s all on me. I wasn’t vocal enough with the coaches and training staff,” Mlodzinski said. “I thought I could go out there and just get it done, but obviously that wasn’t the case. That Clemson game was just a result of it all building up and crashing on me, mentally and physically.”
At first, Mlodzinski was expected to miss only about a month. But as the season wore on, he and the coaching staff decided it would be better for him to sit out the rest of the season, take a redshirt and get ready for 2020.
What at first looked like a devastating injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Those things can go one of two ways,” head coach Mark Kingston said. “Either it becomes a blessing in disguise or it was the beginning of the end. For him, it was a blessing in disguise. He got bigger and stronger and went out to the Cape [Cod League] and dominated and has built on that this fall.”
After a solid freshman season, which included a win in the NCAA Regionals, Mlodzinski entered 2019 as South Carolina’s ace. But three starts into his sophomore season, it was over. His focus immediately turned to the future.
“It sucked, but looking back on it about two weeks later, I said I wasn’t pitching healthy that whole season so I think it’s better to take time off and get healthy and come back strong instead of trying to pitch hurt,” he said. “Right when I got hurt, I said I’m going to treat this as the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m going to get stronger in the weight room, I’m going to give my arm a little extra rest.
“I took off the spring and had a pretty good summer and I felt like it was a little bit of a blessing.”
While his pitching-thin team struggled through a 28-28 season, Mlodzinski hit the weight room, gaining about 20 pounds since last spring. He threw off his knees for two months, strengthening his right arm and shoulder.
When the season ended, he headed to New England, where he pitched in the prestigious Cape Cod League. Facing some of the best hitters in college baseball, Mlodzinski was dominant, going 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA over seven starts for the Falmouth Commodores. He struck out 43 batters in 34.1 innings and went five innings in six of his seven starts. Throwing a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and cutter, Cape Cod hitters batted just .136 against him.
When he returned to campus for fall practice, Mlodzinski was a different pitcher. Now 230 pounds, he’s gained three to four mph on his fastball. With velocity that tops out at 97 mph, he has shot up draft boards and is now projected as a first-round pick in next year’s MLB Draft, with some draft experts ranking him in the top 10. When he started a fall scrimmage against Georgia Tech Oct. 17, there were about 30 major league scouts at Founders Park to watch him.
“To think he is where he is now, I don’t think anybody predicted he would be at this spot,” Kingston said at the end of fall practice.
Pitching coach Skylar Meade sees a more powerful, confident pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire that leaves big-league scouts drooling.
“He just exudes a lot more power in his delivery and it’s a lot more efficient. He’s just got better stuff,” Meade said. “When he gets all four of his pitches working, he will be ready to roll through some lineups. That’s why his draft stock is so high. With the way he pitches, you could profile him as a real starter at the next level.
“Hopefully he will do that for us in the spring.”
With an electric fastball, a heavy sinker and a biting slider and cutter, Mlodzinski spent the fall working on his change-up, a pitch that could elevate his stock even more. He threw mostly fastballs and change-ups in fall scrimmages, working on widening the differential between the two pitches. As a sophomore, there was only about a six to eight mph difference between the two pitches. Now it’s closer to 10-12 mph.
“I think it has better movement on it now,” he said. “I think it’s going to be able to freeze guys and have enough of a velocity difference to where they will swing and miss at it.”
“In the past his changeup didn’t really make hitters uncomfortable. Now it is,” Kingston said. “I think that’s a big part of his development, along with his other pitches just continuing to get polished.”
Mlodzinski also has a different mindset. He entered last season as the ace expected to lead a young and inexperienced pitching staff. With an ailing foot bothering him, he put too much pressure on himself early in the season. Once the injury sidelined him, he worked not only on his strength and velocity but on his mental approach as well.
“Last year I didn’t take it as fun. I think I got a little too stiff on everybody. I was trying to be too serious,” he said. “I thought that’s what it took, to be like a big-league guy, try to be as good as you can. Now I’m a goofball out there just trying to have fun, and I think this is a fun group. We’re not going to put on a fake show for the fans, we’re just going to have fun.”
Pitching in the Cape Cod League and seeing how he stacked up against other elite pitchers helped Mlodzinski relax and figure out what he needs to excel.
“I had a lot of fun up there. It was good experience,” he said.
Meade, who pitched Louisville to the 2017 College World Series, believes pitching against other elite pitchers helped Mlodzinski relax and improve his mental approach.
“You could just see it from the first time he got back on campus,” he said. “They get around other talented people … and their mindset changes in a positive way. I think for Carmen that was the big piece that will help him be at his best this year. I just see it every day in how he plays catch and how he goes about his business.”
So do his teammates. Noah Campbell, who has spent two summers in the Cape Cod League, says Mlodzinski learned this summer to relax and not be so intense on the mound.
“[I think he learned] you need to relax more, you need to have more fun, it doesn’t need to be super intense, and then he made an even bigger jump,” he said. “He should have been a Cape All-Star. He was the best pitcher up there and I think he will be one of the best pitchers this year.”
Andrew Eyster, who led the Gamecocks with a .309 average last year, faced Mlodzinski throughout the fall and saw a different pitcher.
“He’s throwing much harder, he’s throwing four pitches for strikes whenever he wants to and he throws from such an odd angle that it’s impossible to pick up what he’s throwing until it is right there,” he said. “And he has a new air of confidence to him compared to last year. He’s a different guy. He’s going to be a workhorse for us, for sure.”
Now healthy and throwing harder than ever, Mlodzinski is finally ready to be the Friday night ace South Carolina needs at the top of its weekend rotation.
“Everybody needs a Friday night ace,” Kingston said. “This league may have eight first-round picks this year, the majority of those Friday night pitchers. You need a guy like that that can go head to head and one on one on a Friday night to set the tone for you. I think he is well on his way to being that.”