South Carolina is coming off a disappointing 28-28 season and missed the NCAA Tournament last year for the third time in five years.
It was Carolina’s first non-winning season since 1996 and not what is generally expected from one of the proudest, most tradition-rich programs in college baseball.
Such a downturn could put a damper on a program with a large fan base and huge expectations. Head coach Mark Kingston knows that and is determined to prove last season was not indicative of where his program is headed.
“You are anxious to get back out there and prove that that was a fluke,” Kingston said as spring practice got under way. “We are anxious to get back on that field and make it right.”
He could have the team to do it. This year’s team has far more talent and depth than last year’s group and should be good enough to contend in the mighty SEC and possibly follow in the footsteps of Kingston’s first South Carolina team, which made the 2018 Super Regionals and came within one game of returning to Omaha.
Here’s seven reasons to be excited about the 2020 season.
1. Two potential aces
Due primarily to injuries, South Carolina did not have a Friday night ace or a stable weekend rotation last year. Junior Reid Morgan, a 13th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners, was the only reliable option for a team that used 11 different starters.
Barring injuries, that should not be a problem this season. In fact, the Gamecocks should have two of the top starting pitchers in the SEC at the top of the weekend rotation.
Carmen Mlodzinski, last year’s Friday night starter before a broken foot wrecked his season, has come back bigger and stronger than ever. The hard-throwing right-hander enters the season as a top-10 prospect in the 2020 MLB Draft. Armed with a 98-mph fastball, Mlodzinski has nasty stuff and should be the type of dominating starter postseason teams have at the top of the rotation.
The No. 2 starter is Brett Kerry, South Carolina’s best pitcher last season. Kerry shocked everyone with one amazing performance after another. Pitching mostly out of the bullpen, he shut down some of the best teams in the country and gave South Carolina a chance to win every time he took the mound. Now he moves into the starting rotation, where he should be a reliable and exciting option.
The fearless Kerry doesn’t blow away hitters, but pounds the strike zone and keeps hitters off balance with an arsenal of breaking pitches that he commands well. Kerry and Mlodzinski were both outstanding in spring practice and appear ready to go.
South Carolina’s best teams over the past decade have had a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation — from Michael Roth and Forrest Koumas in 2011-12 to Clarke Schmidt and Braden Webb in 2016. Kingston’s 2018 Super Regional team featured two quality starters in Adam Hill and Cody Morris. Mlodzinski and Kerry should be South Carolina’s next dynamic duo.
2. Plenty of starting options
A big key will be finding a third weekend starter and reliable options for key mid-week games — a weak spot the last two seasons. Kingston and pitching coach Skylar Meade had to scramble just to find weekend starters last year, which in turn weakened the options for mid-week games and the bullpen.
With more than a dozen quality arms, that should not be a problem this year.
Junior-college transfer Brannon Jordan, who had 74 strikeouts in 61 innings as a starter last year, was impressive in fall and spring scrimmages and earned the third spot in the weekend rotation.
Thomas Farr was one of the top junior-college pitchers in the country last year. With a fastball that touches 96 mph, he will be a mid-week option if he can remain healthy. Andrew Peters, another junior-college transfer, has bounced back quickly from Tommy John surgery and also will start the season as a mid-week starter.
Both are talented, highly regarded pitchers and could give the Gamecocks a deep and effective starting rotation. And there are other veteran options, like TJ Shook, Cam Tringali and Parker Coyne, available if needed.
3. Closing the door
Because of injuries and a thin rotation, the Gamecocks also had few options in the bullpen last year. Kerry (seven saves) and Tringali were the team’s best relievers, but they were forced into starting duty at times.
South Carolina should benefit from a deep, talented bullpen this season — they wouldn’t be moving Kerry into the rotation if there weren’t plenty of options. If Farr and Peters can lock down rotation spots it only deepens the bullpen.
It could even have two dominant closers. Daniel Lloyd, who struggled as a starter and reliever as a freshman, had a big summer pitching in Savannah and returned to campus looking like an SEC closer. He was a beast in the fall and spring, throwing 97 mph with breaking pitches that were mostly unhittable. Fifth-year senior Graham Lawson, a key reliever on the 2018 team, also looks good after recovering from Tommy John surgery. His mid-90s velocity has returned and if he can command his breaking pitches, he could give the Gamecocks a strong combination at the backend of the bullpen.
If Lloyd and Lawson emerge as reliable closers, the rest of the bullpen lines up well. Tringali, junior-college transfer Brannon Jordan and possibly Coyne and Shook should be dependable setup men. Highly regarded freshman Brett Thomas, who has a wicked curveball, could also be in the mix. Veteran John Gilreath and redshirt freshman Julian Bosnic, who is also returning from Tommy John, could develop into a reliable left-handed option.
With a strong rotation and a deep bullpen, South Carolina’s pitching staff should be much better than last season.
“I don't think it’s really comparable. We have the type of depth now we should have,” Meade said.
4. An exciting offense
There’s really no other way to put this — the Gamecocks were horrendous offensively last year. The were last in the SEC with a .239 average (.208 in league play) and 12th in runs scored. Only one player (Andrew Eyster) hit better than .300 and only four topped .250.
The Gamecocks had only four reliable hitters all season and very little depth in the lineup, which is why seven players who were eligible to return are no longer on the team.
They have been replaced by a mix of talented freshmen, junior-college stars and two impressive grad transfers. The result should be a strong lineup backed by three or four backups good enough to start and compete for at-bats.
The Gamecocks’ only strength last year was power — they were fourth in the SEC with 75 home runs. That should be an asset again this year with as many as six hitters with the power potential to slug double-digit home runs. But they also have several hitters with the skills to grind out quality at-bats, hit in the clutch and drive in runs. Those players should help the South Carolina drastically reduce last year’s 511 strikeouts (fifth in the SEC).
A year ago, the Gamecocks had to sit back and wait on the long ball. When they hit home runs, they won. When they didn’t, they were doomed. The Gamecocks will be much more creative this year, bunting, stealing bases, moving runners and scoring runs the old-fashioned way. A deep lineup and more balanced attack should give them a much better chance against the pitching-heavy SEC.
Kingston and his staff deserve a lot of credit for acknowledging last year’s offensive weaknesses, making changes to their offensive approach and then bringing in better players to execute it. It should lead to a much more dynamic and effective offense.
5. A fab freshman
Brennan Milone arrived on campus with a strong pedigree and high expectations. The 28th-round pick by the Dodgers was so good in high school he broke almost all the school records held by Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis.
He wasted no time proving the reputation was warranted. South Carolina’s starting third baseman has swung a hot bat since the day he arrived at Founders Park. He raked throughout September and October and finished the fall season with three home runs in the final team scrimmage. He has continued mashing in the spring, delivering big hits in almost every scrimmage.
Milone already has the look of a pro ballplayer. He has a professional approach, hits to all fields and crushes mistakes. He should be South Carolina’s best freshman hitter since Jackie Bradley Jr. and Christian Walker, both now major leaguers, and could be the Gamecocks’ first SEC Freshman of the Year.
“He’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like that from a freshman,” Eyster, last year’s leading hitter, said of Milone. “He looks like he’s played at this level for a while now. He’s going to be fun to watch.”
6. Speed to burn
The Gamecocks stole only 52 bases last year (12th in the SEC). New leadoff hitter Noah Myers stole 77 by himself.
That was in junior college, of course, and won’t be duplicated against SEC competition. But Myers can flat-out fly (6.5 in the 60-yard dash) and will have the green light when he is on first. He can hit too, slashing .397/.482/.692 in 59 games last year so he should have plenty of opportunities.
The Gamecocks should also have other speed options. Junior second baseman Noah Campbell had eight steals last year and if he can improve his .239 average and .324 on-base percentage, he could give them another threat. Myers and Campbell could give the Gamecocks base-stealing threats at the top and bottom of the order, depending on how the lineup shakes out.
Freshman Braylen Wimmer and junior-college transfer Jeff Heinrich, both infield options, can also run, giving Carolina speed options in the lineup and off the bench.
7. Position flexibility, depth
South Carolina had virtually no bench last year — heck it barely had enough credible hitters to fill out a lineup. It should have many more options this year, and enough versatility to give Kingston the chance to make the type of tight-game managerial moves that wins ball games.
Nearly every player in the lineup can play multiple positions. First baseman Wes Clarke can also catch. Catchers Dallas Beaver and Bryant Bowen can also play first and third. Middle infielders Noah Campbell, Jeff Heinrich and Braylen Wimmer can play all over the infield or in the outfield.
South Carolina also has depth at catcher, something it sorely lacked last season. Beaver will start but freshman Collin Burgess won the backup role and will get occasional starts. Clarke, Bowen and still developing freshman Jax Cash can also catch.
South Carolina could start the season with Heinrich and outfielder Anthony Amicangelo on the bench. Both can rake, giving Kingston two strong pinch-hitting options. Wimmer has great speed, can play defense and showed in the spring that he can also hit, delivering clutch hits in almost every scrimmage.
Kingston has so many options that positions like first base, second base, catcher and DH might be a revolving door, allowing him to play match-ups and go with the hot bat.
“We have got more than nine hitters that I feel very comfortable about starting,” he 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.”