South Carolina’s top two starting pitchers are in mid-season form and ready to go for opening weekend.
Carmen Mlodzinski and Brett Kerry were both sharp again in Carolina’s seventh spring scrimmage Friday and head coach Mark Kingston confirmed they will be the Gamecocks’ No. 1 and No. 2 starters when the 2020 season opens next week. South Carolina opens the season Feb. 14 against Holy Cross.
Mlodzinski allowed just two hits and one unearned run in five innings Friday, while Kerry allowed just one earned run on two hits. In three spring starts, Mlodzinski has allowed just one earned run on five hits in 11 innings. Kerry has allowed just one earned run on six hits over the same stretch.
“You saw our Friday and Saturday starters today, for sure,” Kingston said after Friday’s seven-inning scrimmage.
Mlodzinski will be the team’s Opening Day and Friday starter, while Kerry will pitch on Saturdays, Kingston said.
Junior-college transfer Thomas Farr will pitch in Saturday’s scrimmage and is expected to be the team’s No. 3 weekend starter if he remains healthy. Andrew Peters, another junior-college transfer, will also pitch this weekend and will be the team’s mid-week starter provided he stays healthy after coming off Tommy John surgery.
Kingston and his staff have been cautious with the two highly regarded pitchers, who are both coming off injuries from last season.
“They’ll pitch this weekend and we’ll see how they feel,” he said.
Kingston continues to be impressed with Mlodzinski, who was the team’s Friday night starter last season but made just three starts before suffering a broken foot and missing the rest of the season. He had an outstanding summer in the elite Cape Cod League, however, and enters the season as one of the top-10 prospects in the country.
“Everything is better,” Kingston said. “The fastball is better, the command is better, the cutter is better, the changeup is better. He’s more confident, he’s bigger and stronger. He’s just a different person all the way around.”
Two other key pitchers had rough outings Friday. Freshman R.J. Dantin, who is being counted on for left-handed relief, gave up three runs on three hits, including a two-run homer by Andrew Eyster.
Fifth-year senior Graham Lawson also struggled as he continues to battle back from Tommy John surgery. Lawson gave up two runs on two hits and two walks.
Noah Campbell and freshman Brennan Milone led the offense with two hits each. Milone continued his impressive spring with three RBI.
• Left-handed pitcher Dylan Harley had successful Tommy John surgery Thursday and will miss the 2020 season. Right-hander Wesley Sweatt is also still out with a knee injury and may not be back for a while, Kingston said.
The Gamecocks did get some good news Friday as left-hander John Gilreath returned after missing the start of spring practice for personal reasons. He rejoined the team Friday and Kingston hopes he will be ready to pitch by opening weekend. With few left-handers on the pitching staff, the Gamecock need Gilreath, who had a strong fall.
• Kingston also provided some clarity Friday on the team’s catching situation. Grad transfer Dallas Beaver will be the starter with freshman Collin Burgess serving as the backup and likely getting some spot starts. First baseman/catcher Wes Clarke will likely be the third catcher while freshman Jax Cash continues to develop.
Kingston has been impressed with the defense and development of Burgess.
“Burgess can really catch and help us win and do a lot of little things, like getting a bunt down,” he said. “He can really catch and really throw and really block and he’s a tough out at the plate. I can definitely see us not having to rely on one guy this year.”
• Kingston also continues to be impressed with freshman infielder Braylen Wimmer, who he called one of the team’s best players during spring practice. Wimmer had another hit Friday and played solid defense at shortstop while George Callil rests a sore back.
“He’s improving in every area,” Kingston said. “He’s more confident, he has more fun now. Sometimes that first semester, especially when you come from far away like he did, it’s a major adjustment. He’s playing at a much higher level and he’s more confident. He’s swinging the bat well, he’s stealing bases and his defense is light years from where it was in the fall. You see a confident, talented player right now.”
Wimmer and junior-college transfer Jeff Heinrich give the Gamecocks some solid depth and are pushing for playing time at second base or shortstop. Kingston admits he is going to have a tough decision to make at second, where Wimmer and Heinrich are battling Campbell, a returning starter and preseason All-American. Campbell has also gotten some reps in the outfield.
“We have a lot of good options out there,” Kingston
Kingston said who plays second or short may depend on whether a ground-ball pitcher is on the mound.
“If we have a ground-ball pitcher on the mound, maybe we go with our defense in the infield. If we have a flyball pitcher on the mound, you might try to sneak the offense in there when you don’t think you are going to get many ground balls. They are all very capable,” he said.
Heinrich and Wimmer have swung hot bats throughout spring practice, while Campbell has also hit the ball well. He had a line-drive double Friday and an opposite-field single on a ground ball through the hole.
“They all know they need to play good baseball to get into this lineup because we have more than nine guys that can play. It keeps them all focused,” Kingston said.
• There is also competition in the outfield. While Eyster and junior-college center fielder Noah Myers are expected to start, Brady Allen, Anthony Amicangelo and Campbell are competing for playing time at the third spot. Amicangelo, who has also hit well throughout the spring, had an RBI double on a great at-bat Friday.
“That outfield is a crowded group right now,” Kingston said. “Amicangelo handles the bat as well as anybody and Brady Allen has gotten a lot better and Myers is a key guy defensively. He’s out best outfielder and Eyster can hit. … We’ve got options and we have decisions to make. More than nine guys will get to play for us, that’s for sure.”
• Eyster led the team in hitting last year with a .309 average and is heating up with a week to go before the season opener. He helped himself Friday with home run to left.
“He knows it’s not going to be handed to him, he’s got to continue to earn it,” Kingston said. “He’s working on shortening his swing to try to cut down on the strikeouts. When he can shorten up the swing and hit the ball 107 [exit velocity] like he did for that home run today, that’s good stuff.”