South Carolina is counting heavily on three highly-regarded junior-college pitchers this season.
But head coach Mark Kingston and his staff are being careful with starters Thomas Farr and Andrew Peters, who are both coming off arm injuries from last season. That opened the door for fellow JUCO pitcher Brannon Jordan to win the third weekend starter spot.
“Brannon pitched really well, especially late in our spring camp,” Kingston said Thursday. “He had some great moments throughout the fall and spring and we just felt like he was the best combination of full-go stuff and talent to give him that first Sunday start.”
Kingston said Farr and Peters, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, are both healthy and ready to go. They likely will be the starting pitchers during the first mid-week games next Tuesday and Wednesday but will be on strict pitch counts early in the season.
“They both feel good and we’re very optimistic about them,” he said.
Farr and Peters are both hard-throwing right-handers who are expected to be key pitchers this season, either in the weekend rotation or as mid-week starters. The Gamecocks have some big mid-week games against tough teams like NC State and North Carolina.
“They have been knocking off some rust,” Kingston said. “They have fastballs in the low-90s and they are guys who will be in the mid- to high-90s when they are completely back. We’re not going to rush them, we are not going to ask them to do too much too early. The second half of the season is much more important than the first half and we want to make sure when we get to that point, those guys are 100 percent and they are full-go, because they are special guys.”
Kingston has some big decisions to make for Opening Day, especially at second base, where three players have been battling for the starting job.
Returning starter Noah Campbell, a preseason All-American, has been pushed by junior-college freshman Jeff Heinrich and freshman Braylen Wimmer and Kingston hinted Thursday that either Heinrich or Wimmer would start on Opening Day, with Campbell possibly in the outfield.
“He’s one of our best hitters and has been through fall and spring and he will be a guy who can play multiple positions for us, some left field and second base and third base,” Kingston said of Campbell. “I’m not going to reveal where he will play tomorrow … [but] he’ll be hitting in our lineup on a regular basis and he gives us position flexibility right now.”
Kingston said who plays second — and likely some other positions — would depend on multiple factors, including pitching matchups, defense vs. offense and even weather conditions.
“Every day is a little bit different. We’ll evaluate what the trends are, who’s hot, who we are playing against, the weather conditions. We will put the best team on the field that day that gives us the best chance to win,” he said.
More Important Than Baseball
Part of Kingston’s thoughts on Thursday were with former Gamecock player and grad assistant Justin Row, who is battling cancer. Row, a second baseman, was a key player on Kingston’s first South Carolina team in 2018 and served as a grad assistant under Kingston last year.
His family revealed on social media this week that Row is undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“He will beat this, there is absolutely no doubt in anybody’s mind who knows Justin Row,” Kingston said. “He’s a gamer, he’s a winner, he’s a grinder, he will beat this. And I just know all of Gamecock Nation sends their thoughts and prayers to him. We have been in contact and he appreciates all the love and support that he has been getting from a lot of different people. We will stay in close contact with him just to make sure if he needs anything we can help with it and he will get that.”
With eight new position players, South Carolina is expected to have a deeper, more balanced offense this season. No one knows that better than junior outfielder Andrew Eyster, who led the Gamecocks in hitting last year at .309/.389/.576.
Eyster, Campbell, Brady Allen and Wes Clarke return from last season, while newcomers Noah Myers, Dallas Beaver and Bryan Bowen are all expected to be in the Opening Day lineup.
“Offensively, it’s a huge difference, a lot more complete offense … from a talent standpoint and just an approach with how we go about things,” Eyster said. “I think we have a complete lineup of just better hitters one through nine. The guys who were here last year are going to be better and we have some new guys who will also do really well and perform. You’re going to notice a tremendous difference.”
Kingston and his players have been thrilled with what they have seen from freshman Brennan Milone, who will start at third base on Opening Day. A 28th-round draft pick by the Dodgers last summer, Milone is rated the No. 9 impact freshman in the SEC and has been one of the team’s best hitters throughout the fall and spring.
Eyster and pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski have been impressed by Milone’s polished approach at the plate.
“The bat speed is there and stands out,” Mlodzinski said.
Eyster has raved about Milone since the fall.
“His approach at the plate and his ability to make hard contact [are impressive],” he said. “He’s a pretty hard guy to strike out, and that’s a big thing for a freshman. You come in here and it’s extremely different from high school and you get guys who miss a lot of barrels and are swinging and missing a lot, but he never really went through that. He’s kinda been the same guy since he came in here, always squaring up balls, hitting balls hard, taking his walks, fighting to get in favorable counts.
“It’s impressive for a freshman. We didn’t see anything like it last year, and it’s probably pretty rare to see something like that.”
Lloyd To Close
Daniel Lloyd will be the team’s closer after a dominating performance in the fall and spring, but Kingston emphasized Thursday that the sophomore right-hander will have plenty of help at the backend of the bullpen.
Fifth-year senior Graham Lawson, who has returned from Tommy John surgery, has experience closing while Cam Tringali is expected to be a key setup guy. Kingston said junior Parker Coyne “has improved as much as anybody in our program from a pitching standpoint.” TJ Shook, who made several starts last year, will also play a key role in the bullpen.
Sweatt Out, Gilreath Back
Sophomore right-hander Wesley Sweatt had Tommy John surgery Wednesday and will miss the 2020 season, but the Gamecocks got some good news with the return of junior left-hander John Gilreath.
Gilreath missed the first two weeks of spring practice due to a personal issue but returned to the team last week and threw a simulated game this week. Kingston said he “looked pretty sharp” and will be available to pitch this weekend.
Gilreath and redshirt freshman Julian Bosnic will be the key left-handers out of the bullpen.
Callil Healthy, Ready To Rake
Shortstop George Callil, who missed time last week with a sore back, is healthy and ready for Opening Day. And Kingston expects the slick-fielding infielder to be more of a factor offensively this season. He hit just .214 in his first season at South Carolina last year.
“I think he’s a little stronger and a little more simple in his physical approach and I think he is more confident because of that,” he said. “… He is just a simpler, more fundamentally sound hitter and our hope is that because of that he has more success, and I think he will.”