After South Carolina’s pitching had dominated most of spring practice, the bats finally came alive Sunday, producing nine runs on 17 hits in a five-and-a-half inning scrimmage at Founders Park.
The offensive outburst came a day after the Gamecocks managed just six hits against starters Carmen Mlodzinski and Brett Kerry and a pair of dominant relievers.
“What you saw the last couple of days is what you should see out of good teams — when your high-end, Friday, Saturday and closer guys are pitching, it’s tough on the offense. Today, the offense got its revenge, so that’s what you want to see,” head coach Mark Kingston said.
The Gamecocks displayed the type of balanced attack Kingston wants to see. They hit two home runs, had five stolen bases and laid down three perfect bunts — two for hits and one a sacrifice that led to an error. They also had several clutch RBI hits as six different players had multi-hit games.
“We stole our bases, we hit for power but we also got two sac bunts down, we had two bunts for hits and had a successful hit-and-run. That’s what we want,” Kingston said. “We want speed and power but we also want to be able to play the fundamentals of the game and today was a really good look at that.”
Here’s a look at some key notes from Sunday’s action-packed scrimmage:
• Kingston is going to have some difficult decisions to make in the infield. Junior Noah Campbell (one hit, two stolen bases Sunday) returns at second base but junior-college transfer Jeff Heinrich and freshman Braylen Wimmer are having outstanding spring camps.
Wimmer had two hits, two stolen bases and scored two runs Sunday. He had five stolen bases in the two scrimmages Saturday and Sunday. Heinrich continued to swing a hot bat with two more hits Sunday, including a two-run double. They both have played outstanding defense at second base, while Campbell has gotten some work at both third base and in the outfield.
“Every one of them can start, every one of them is good enough to start,” Kingston said. “Braylen Wimmer gets better by the day and he’s exciting a lot of people right now. Jeff Heinrich is doing nothing but playing great defense, running the bases really well, making diving plays and hitting line drives every time he’s up there it looks like. That’s a nice luxury that we have three guys that can start.”
Kingston is not ready to name a starting second baseman and is not sure yet how he will use all three players.
“We’re a long way from making that decision. We have two more weeks to let that play out,” he said.
The 17-hit attack Sunday showed the depth offensively Kingston has to work with. Grad transfers Dallas Beaver and Bryant Bowen both had two hits Sunday, as did junior-college transfers Anthony Amicangelo, Heinrich and Noah Myers. Amicangelo, who is battling for playing time in the outfield or possibly at DH, had a big day with three hits, including a solo home run.
“We have got more than nine hitters that I feel very comfortable about starting,” Kingston said. “We may actually be 12 or 13 deep, and that’s a nice issue to have. Our roster depth and talent right now is in a good place.”
• Brennan Milone, a highly recruited freshman who is expected to start at third base, continues to be one of the most impressive players in spring practice. He absolutely crushed a long home run off TJ Shook Sunday, a blast that sailed over the left-field bullpen and landed on the concourse near the scoreboard. Milone homered in both games this weekend after hitting three on the last day of fall practice in October.
• Shook and junior-college transfer Brannon Jordan are battling for the third spot in the weekend rotation or the mid-week starter role, but both got hit hard on Sunday.
Jordan gave up three runs on five hits and two walks in 2.1 innings. He gave up a leadoff single to Wimmer that resulted in a run in the first and then gave up the home run to Amicangelo and two more runs in the second.
Shook gave up Milone’s home run before settling down and getting out of the first. He gave up an RBI single to Beaver in the second and then got lit up in the third, surrendering three runs on five hits. He wound up allowing five runs on eight hits.
While Mlodzinski and Kerry have locked down weekend rotation spots, the third starter and mid-week starter roles are still up for grabs. Junior-college transfer Thomas Farr, who has the inside track for the third weekend spot, did not pitch Sunday but Kingston said the coach staff is just being cautious with him. They are always taking it slowly with junior-college pitcher Andrew Peters, who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
“I think that Sunday and Tuesday and middle relief [spots] is where we are having to really look the most and see what the best roles are,” he said.
• Two young pitchers had encouraging outings Sunday that could bode well for the bullpen.
Freshman Brett Thomas saw his first action of the spring and unveiled a lethal curveball. He got Wimmer on a ground ball to short to start his lone inning before giving up back-to-back singles to Andrew Eyster and Beaver. After an error on a sac bunt loaded the bases, he struck out both Wimmer and Eyster on curveballs to get out of the inning.
Thomas, who is expected to pitch out of the bullpen, topped out at 92 on his fastball, but his curveball, as predicted, looks like the best on the team.
“That 2,900 spin rate on the breaking ball, that’s a real breaking ball,” Kingston said. “That’s how you get out of jams sometimes, you just have to throw that hammer.”
Thomas is one of two freshmen pitchers who emerged this weekend as possible bullpen options. Left-hander RJ Dantin gave up a home run to Milone on Saturday but also had two strikeouts in his one inning of work.
“They look like they have good arms, obviously,” Kingston said. “They both threw over 90. … They both have pretty significant potential.”
Left-hander Josiah Sightler also had an impressive outing Sunday. Sightler, who started his career as a first baseman last year, is a two-way player this year and is making a bid to earn a bullpen role. He threw two scoreless innings Sunday with four strikeouts.
Sightler started slowly, walking the first two batters he faced in the fourth inning. But he struck out George Callil, Noah Myers and Milone to get out of the inning. In the fifth, he retired the side in order with another strikeout.
“He’s still a work in progress. He’s a guy who will compete for you,” Kingston said. “The first inning I was a little disappointed in his command, but the second inning he was really good. We are looking for lefties that can help us and he’s in that mix.”
The Gamecocks need left-handed options after news last week that left-hander Dylan Harley, who pitched 41 innings last year, will miss the season with Tommy John surgery. Junior left-hander John Gilreath is also not with the team while dealing with a personal issue.
“It’s not a huge strength of ours, but we have some guys that can do it and if they get better will be in that mix,” Kingston said. “I think we have some guys who will step up.”
• Kingston continues to rave about Danny Lloyd, who may have taken a huge step toward earning the closer’s role Saturday with two scoreless innings and five strikeouts in six batters faced. Lloyd is battling fifth-year senior Graham Lawson, who is battling back from Tommy John surgery. Lawson showed good velocity in his one inning but gave up a solo home run and two walks.
“Lloyd is outstanding. If he’s throwing strikes, he’s really, really tough to hit, and that’s a great development for us,” Kingston said. “With Graham, the velocity is there, the slider is there, he just needs to throw more strikes with the breaking stuff, and if he does, he’ll be really good for us too. “