When Brett Kerry tossed a scoreless inning in mop-up duty in the second game of the season last year, no one thought much of it.
Kerry had struggled in the fall, didn’t show much in spring practice and no one knew what to expect out of the freshman from Clemmons, N.C.
But the next day, he was lights-out again, throwing two scoreless innings with three strikeouts to pick up the win in a 3-2 victory over Liberty.
“You see what he does in the first game and you’re like, ‘OK, that looked pretty good,’” redshirt sophomore Cam Tringali said. “The next day it’s a tie game in the eighth inning and we bring him back in and he comes in and gets the job done again and you’re like, ‘Ok, we can absolutely work with that.’”
A week later, Kerry did it again, earning another win with a two-inning, four-strikeout performance against Utah Valley. At that point, the 5-11, 195-pound right-hander looked like he might be a reliable option out of the bullpen.
That turned out to be a huge understatement. In his fourth appearance of the season, Kerry delivered a clutch performance that would foretell a remarkable season for South Carolina’s most valuable player.
In a 5-4 win at Clemson, Kerry struck out seven batters in 3.1 innings of relief to shut down the Tigers and spark the Gamecocks to a series win over their arch-rival.
It was then that the Gamecocks realized they had something special in Kerry.
“That was probably one of the most incredible things I have seen since I have been there,” Tringali said. “That’s when you realized this kid is pretty special.”
Kerry’s rise to prominence has been well documented. He struggled so badly when he first arrived on campus, there where questions over whether he would even make the team. But after refocusing and working hard during winter workouts, he returned a different player last spring.
“I think I just had to realize who I was as a pitcher,” Kerry said. “In high school, that’s kind of the pitcher I was in the spring. The fall was just a horrible speed bump. I fell out of rhythm and I felt like it just took time to get back to where I was and the focus that I need to go out and pitch and not focus on anything else.”
Though he got off to an impressive start, the Clemson series was when he realized he could shine against top competition.
“The first couple of weekends went well, but going against a top-tier competitor and pitching well definitely showed me I could do something like that,” he said.
Kerry was fired up when he walked off the mound that night at Clemson, but he downplays the performance now and doesn’t get too caught up in the fierce in-state rivalry. But shutting down the rival Tigers paved the way for what was to come.
“If you go out there in maybe the biggest game of our season to that point and do what he did in a one-run game, in a rivalry game on the road, you feel on the top of the world at that point,” Tringali said. “He may not admit it, but you got to have some sort of feeling that I can absolutely do this and I belong here.”
Kerry continued to prove that throughout the season, emerging as South Carolina’s ace and a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season. In 22 appearances, he was 4-1 with a 2.62 ERA and seven saves. He struck out 65 batters and walked just 13 in 58.1 innings while holding opponents to a .200 batting average.
He was at his best against SEC competition. He struck out five in two innings to earn a save at Tennessee and had three-inning saves against both Texas A&M and Kentucky. He shut out Alabama on the road to earn another win and then finished the season with a gem at No. 3 Mississippi State. In only his second start of the season, he held the Bulldogs to just two runs in six innings in a game the Gamecocks had to win to make the SEC Tournament.
He had the 10th-best ERA in the SEC (2.95) and held conference opponents to a .208 average (ninth-best) to earn Freshman SEC and All-American honors.
What was most impressive was his versatility. He pitched his team out of jams in the middle of games, closed out seven wins and earned two wins on the road as a starter.
“He got a taste of doing everything last year,” said Tringali, who also filled multiple pitching roles last year. “He was a shut-down closer. When you look at him, he doesn’t really look like a guy who could come in and slam the door in the ninth but I think that goes in his favor. I think guys get up there and see what he looks like and say, ‘Who’s this kid?’ But he can beat you with anything. He’s one of the best in the SEC.”
Kerry was so good last year he surprised even himself.
“Definitely a little surprised,” he said. “Obviously you see yourself doing that stuff, but you can’t say going into college, I am going to pitch against Clemson and close it out and do all that kind of stuff. But I did know that I had some of that in me.”
Now comes his next big challenge as Kerry moves into the weekend rotation, giving the Gamecocks a potent 1-2 punch with Friday night ace Carmen Mlodzinski.
After straining his oblique late last season, he didn’t pitch over the summer. He was invited to pitch in the Cape Cod League but chose to stay on campus and work with strength and conditioning coach Billy Anderson. After gaining 15 pounds, he’s bigger, stronger, throwing harder and prepared for an even bigger role this season.
“I’m a whole lot stronger, a whole lot more comfortable, I feel the best I have,” he said entering spring practice.
He proved right away he’s ready to build on last year’s incredible season. In the first spring scrimmage, he started opposite Mlodzinski and tossed three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out two. In three spring starts, he allowed just six hits and one earned run in 11 innings. Though his velocity was a bit down after not pitching for six months, he pounded the strike zone and kept hitters off balance with a sharp slider, a changeup and a developing curve ball.
“Brett Kerry was Brett Kerry,” hed coach Mark Kingston said. “That’s the great thing about him. It’s in his DNA to throw strikes at a high level. He missed all fall and he was out here and he didn’t skip a beat. Very encouraging.”
Kingston believes the bigger, strong Kerry is prepared to pitch deep into games as a starter.
“He’s got to prove it but he minimizes his pitches. He’s not a guy who generaly has to throw 25 pitches in a inning. He’s generally in the 12 to 15 range and that allows him to go deeper into games,” he said. “He doesn’t waste a lot of pitches, he doesn’t have a lot of three-ball counts. That’s a guy who could go deep into games for you.”
Kerry was so good as South Carolina’s jack-of-all-trades last year, he enters 2020 on college baseball’s Stopper of the Year Watch List, though he will be a starter. He relishes the opportunity to pitch in the weekend rotation.
“I definitely feel like I can help the team starting,” he said. “But anything the team needs me to do is what I’m going to try to do.”
Just like last year.