After Brannon Jordan watched teammates Carmen Mlodzinski and Brett Kerry deliver two dominating pitching performances in the first two games of the season-opening series versus Holy Cross, he knew he had to step up on Sunday.
“It definitely put a chip on my shoulder to go out there and match what they did,” the junior-college transfer from Collinsville, Okla. said. “There’s a competitive environment on this team and they went out and threw great so I had to go out and match them, for sure.”
The weekend rotation was the biggest bright spot as South Carolina opened the season with a series sweep. And while the competition will get tougher from here on out, head coach Mark Kingston had plenty to be encouraged about in the Gamecocks’ first three games.
Here’s a look at what we learned from opening weekend.
Mlodzinski, Kerry and Jordan combined to give up just three earned runs and strike out 24 batters in 17 innings. The trio walked only one batter.
Mlodzinski set the tone on Friday with seven scoreless innings, the longest outing of his career. He scattered six hits, walked one and struck out three on an efficient 87 pitches.
Kerry had a rough second inning against Holy Cross, giving up three runs on three extra-base hits, but he rebounded nicely during his five-inning start. Except for the one inning — which came after a 40-minute bottom of the first, when his teammates scored five runs — Kerry was dominant, striking out a career-high 12 batters with no walks.
Jordan continued the dominance Sunday in miserable conditions. Despite the cold and a steady rain, Jordan allowed just two hits and struck out nine of the 17 batters he faced in a five-inning shutout. The junior-college transfer showed why he won the third spot in the weekend rotation.
“Brannon really set the tone on the mound,” Kingston said. “He just had really good command of a plus slider. You saw a guy with really good command and a really good secondary pitch.”
The pitching was backed by a defense that committed just one error in 23 innings, and it was a dropped popup in the rain and on a sloppy field Sunday.
“It all starts with pitching, and then the next step is always defense,” Kingston said. “If you’re looking at your pitching and defense and evaluating how it was in our first weekend, it was very good, very good.”
Freshman Braylen Wimmer, who dreamed of playing for the Gamecocks while growing up in Yukon, Okla., won the starting second base job over veteran Noah Campbell and junior-college transfer Jeff Heinrich. And he didn’t disappoint.
Wimmer had an outstanding weekend in the field and at the plate. He went 4-for-9 with three runs scored and three RBI in the three games and played stellar defense, especially on Opening Day, when he combined with shortstop George Callil to turn two rally-killing double plays.
Wimmer, at least at this point, seems like he will be a fixture in the Gamecock lineup.
“He showed what we had been seeing all spring, that he was ready to play and he can handle it from a maturity standpoint. He’s a player,” Kingston said. “He will have growing pains like everybody does, but he’s mature, he’s extremely athletic, he’s fast, he’s rangy, he’s been taking good at-bats. It’s a nice addition to our roster and to our lineup.”
Wimmer took the hot start in stride.
“It was a good weekend. Now I have to get back in the cages and take ground balls and keep getting better and keep moving forward,” he said.
Freshman third baseman Brennan Milone also had a productive first weekend. He opened the season batting third and walked three times and scored a run on Friday. He reached on an error and scored again on Saturday before leaving the game with a hip flexor. He sat out Sunday’s game and is considered day to day.
Kingston knew going into the weekend that he had a deep and versatile lineup, and he showed it on opening weekend.
He used three different starting lineups, shuffling the batting order each day and playing 14 players on Friday, 12 on Saturday and 10 in the five-inning game Sunday. Brady Allen led off on Friday and Saturday, while center fielder Noah Myers was the leadoff man on Sunday. There were also three different cleanup hitters — Bryant Bowen, Andrew Eyster and Wes Clarke.
The lineup may continue to change from game to game, depending on several factors, including pitching matchups, the defense behind South Carolina’s starting pitcher and even weather conditions. With the rain on Sunday, Kingston knew there wouldn’t be much power hitting — though Clarke hit a mammoth home run — so he used a faster, contact-hitting lineup that could manufacture runs. It paid off with a big second inning, when the Gamecocks scored four runs on just one hit. They had six stolen bases in the game.
“It was a day we had to manufacture runs and we were able to use our athleticism and speed on the bases,” he said. “Our lineup will continue to be a work in progress, but the good thing is we have options.”
Though the Gamecocks showed great plate discipline (17 walks in three games) and the ability to manufacture runs, the power is still there. Carolina hit five home runs, including two each by Eyster and Clarke.
Bowen, hitting in the cleanup spot, hit a three-run home run in his first South Carolina at-bat. Eyster homered on Friday and Saturday, while Clarke homered on Saturday and Sunday. Clarke’s home run Sunday was a blast that traveled 415 feet and had an exit velocity of 109. He and Eyster have the power to hit no-doubters and look like they will be fixtures in the middle of the lineup.
Though the three games weren’t really close, the bullpen was also solid over the weekend, with six pitchers combining for six scoreless innings and six strikeouts. The only downside was six walks, five of them on Saturday.
The two most impressive relievers were Parker Coyne and Graham Lawson. Coyne entered the game with one out in the eighth on Saturday and walked the first two batters he faced. He then struck out the next two.
“Parker had great stuff,” Kingston said.
The most encouraging performance was Lawson, who is coming off Tommy John surgery. The fifth-year senior was a key reliever on the 2018 Super Regional team but missed all of last season. He velocity was up to 95-96 in spring practice, but he struggled with his command.
He pitched the eighth inning on Friday and struck out the side, reaching 96 mph and commanding his hard slider.
“The velocity has been there and the break on the slider has been there, it’s just a matter of getting it in the zone consistently,” Kingston said. “I think he was really happy to not face our offense because our offense had been hitting him around a little bit. We wanted to get him confidence. He had been wanting to get out there in a real game against another opponent and we thought it was a good day to get him out there and build his confidence.”
Unlike last season, South Carolina also has plenty of options at catcher. Grad transfer Dallas Beaver and freshman Colin Burgess split the three games over the weekend and both looked good.
Beaver had a two-run double on Friday, while Burgess had an RBI double on Saturday. Both were solid behind the plate. Kingston plans to continue to play both catchers.
“They both caught well, they blocked well, they threw well. We’ve got two real catchers there defensively,” he said. “Offensively, Beaver will get better. He’s just not swinging it like he can right now, but he will. The more you watch Burgess, the more you appreciate what he is.”
More Arms Coming
While South Carolina appears to have a solid weekend rotation, it will debut two more new starters Tuesday and Wednesday, weather permitting.
Right-handers Thomas Farr and Andrew Peters, both junior-college transfers, are scheduled to start Tuesday against Winthrop (Farr) and Wednesday versus Presbyterian (Peters). Both pitchers are coming off injuries so they will be on strict pitch counts, meaning the bullpen likely will get plenty of work.
Farr and Peters could play a big role as mid-week starters or as weekend options later in the season.
“They’re two very talented guys,” Kingston said.
Added Jordan: “Farr and Peters are some of the best guys we’ve got, so for them to be on Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ve got a good staff.”