By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
When Skylar Meade joined head coach Mark Kingston's staff as pitching coach in November of 2017, he had only about six weeks to get his staff ready for the 2018 season.
Not only was he replacing one of the top pitching coaches in the country in Jerry Meyers, but he was taking over a staff that lost nearly 85 percent of its innings pitched from 2017.
Having arrived just after the completion of fall practice, Meade had little time to implement the systems that helped him make Michigan State one of the top pitching teams in the Big Ten. He had just enough time to get to know his pitchers before they were thrown into the fire, most of them for the first time.
"It was a totally new cast of characters but what I commend the guys on is they worked hard in the preseason and they made a lot of adjustments," Meade said in an interview last week. "Of course, there are things you wish you could be better at and have more discipline, but I think our biggest goal was … my job this year was just to try to get these guys to give us as many opportunities to win games as possible."
Meade did just that. In his first year at South Carolina, his young and inexperienced staff compiled a .441 ERA and opponents hit just .243, respectable numbers in the tough SEC. The result was a 37-26 team that made it to the Super Regionals and came within one game of making the College World Series.
Meade recently spoke with Spurs & Feathers about the 2018 season and what he learned in his first year as South Carolina's pitching coach. Here are some excerpts of what he had to say.
What was your initial impression of what you had to work with on this staff? What did you view as your biggest challenge?
"I knew that there was a lot of trouble with command. I saw the fall numbers. There was no secret that we walked more guys than we struck out, so I knew that was going to be an uphill battle in terms of just working on command. I told King right before the year that I had some realistic goals for our pitchers, and we hit the mark exactly on the head. Is that what our program should be? No, I have to continue as a coach to help them get better with command and we have to keep getting better with command. But I think our pitchers, 95 percent of them, they maximized their ability at this time in their career.
"One thing I would say I noticed is that we have a lot of guys who have a good arm. They have arm speed and they have velocity but I think anyone who has watched baseball around here knows there is a lot more to pitching than just lighting up the radar. You have got to execute, you have to spin the baseball and I think guys got better at it. Was it to a level I hope we will be at in a couple of years? Absolutely not, but we did a very good job with a lot of the younger guys. They developed as the year went on and threw a lot of important innings."
What are you most proud of from this season and what was your biggest surprise?
"I think we were 36-1 when we had a lead after seven innings. Everyone thought, how are you guys going to win, who is going to pitch in the bullpen? It was all that was talked about. You try to block out the outside questions and stuff, but it's human nature, we listened. But I was proud of our bullpen and the job that they did. The only game that we had a lead late and lost was the Ole Miss Sunday game when we were trying to sweep them. So for us to have done that as a bullpen between Ridge Chapman, [Graham] Lawson late in the year, Eddy [Demurias] all year, Sawyer Bridges, Parker Coyne, we had so many guys that no one knew what to expect and they stepped up many times. We had moments when Carmen Mlodzinski came out of the pen early in the year and was good, John Gilreath had some moments later in the year. That part was very exciting, trying to figure it out, and we were trying to figure it out with only one left-hander on our team, so we had to get very inventive. But that is why you coach, you get a chance to compete and try to figure out a way."
What was the key to the development of Sawyer as the closer?
"The first thing is, I'm going to give him all the credit on this, he is one tough, competitive dude. No disrespect to anyone else on the team, but he has got to be one of the toughest kids I have ever been around. He has that moxie and that ability to handle high-leverage situations as well as anyone. And collectively … I went through a very serious shoulder injury in college, so I understand and can certainly relate, so what we were able to do as the year went along is just continue to develop a better routine to keep him healthy. … Some guys go out and pitch and the next day they can long-toss and work on their craft. Sawyer is not blessed with the ability to do that right now [because of his shoulder injury] but we were able to find ways to keep him linked in to his motion and his delivery. And the arm angle, if you saw him throw in February once he was able to return to the mound, you saw an arm angle that would sometimes raise up and what we were able to learn as the year went on was to get that slot even with his shoulder and really turn the baseball over and sacrifice a little bit of velocity for plus movement and when you want to go and reach back and use velocity, elevate it out of the zone. That was a big part of why Sawyer was so good but sometimes with all those arm angles and different pitches and execution, if you are a really, really tough kid and you are a winner, you find a way, and I think that's what Sawyer did."
What changed for Cody Morris over his final six or seven starts? What clicked for him that suddenly made him so good?
"The number one thing was, Cody just developed some confidence about himself. I know that doesn't sound really exciting, but he carried himself differently and it allowed him to throw the baseball with freedom and execute. When you feel good about yourself and you've got your chest out, it's amazing how much better you can do things athletically, and that's what Cody really did. The repertoire was maybe not as good as it was early on. Early in the year he was hitting 96, 97 and 98 [mph]. Later in the year, he really pitched more 88-93, but he was able to keep the change-up where he wanted it, spin some breaking balls in there from time to time and he really located the fastball in and out and down and he had that confidence that was needed to be a high-level starter in the SEC and in the NCAA Tournament. He was awesome. We would not have gotten where he did without Cody and the consistency he showed, especially those last four starts. He was magnificent against Missouri, Texas A&M, East Carolina and Arkansas. He was just awesome and he competed as well as he has ever competed probably in his life and it was really awesome to watch just the transformation and his self confidence."
Where did that confidence come from? Was there a moment when it all came together?
"We had some heart-to-hearts over the early part of the year and there were some times when Cody really stepped up and really answered the ball. Florida comes to mind, Kentucky, where we really challenged him. But I think what happened is that he had just never thrown this many innings in his career because he has had some arm issues in the past, so there were some alterations made to his preparation, which I think helped. But I also just feel like once he was able to really use his whole arsenal in games like the Missouri game when he threw so great, I think it was almost like a light bulb for him that showed him that he belongs and that he is one of the top pitchers in the SEC, which we all know is the best league in the country. Once he did that, it changed him, and you could see it as coaches happening and thankfully it continued for a long time."
Adam Hill was really dominant in the first half of the year and then struggled some in the second half. What happened to him that caused him to struggle down the stretch?
"If you look at his first four starts, 43 strikeouts and seven walks, he was unbelievable. He looked like a first-rounder. His delivery was on point, he was spinning the breaking ball well, the change-up was great all year, but with Adam, I truly believe … I think once he had the little issue with the dead arm and the shoulder hurting a little bit, it made him alter his delivery in a manner that wasn't conducive to as much success with him. I applaud him that he was able to battle after having to sit out for that little bit of time early in the SEC slate and coming back and taking the ball every week. Did he pitch the way he wanted and the way we wanted? No, because we know how good he can be, but I think as he gets that arm healthy again and calms down that separation with his hand, Adam will get back to the Adam everybody knows, the Clemson Adam that was one of the better performances Gamecock fans have probably ever seen. But if you just watch the delivery in February and March and compare it to now, you knew he was compensating a little bit whether it was conscious or subconscious. But I think Adam will get it rectified as he gets healthy in professional baseball and I think he has a chance to pitch for a long time."
How do you evaluate what you have coming back next year and what you have coming in? (This question was asked before news that MLB draftees Ridge Chapman and Graham Lawson would return for their senior seasons).
"It's important that you continue the art of developing pitchers. I get excited because I have looked in my career and the second year I have got to coach in every program has been our highlight year. We have been able to do things, guys develop, there is going to be a surprise guy that becomes a star. Those things excite me. Do you wish you had some of those guys who became very good this year back? Of course, but we are at South Carolina and we are going to lose guys to professional baseball. That's what happens. So our job as coaches is to get Logan Chapman to be the guy he was Friday night against LSU every time. Carmen Mlodzinski to be the guy he was against Furman and against UNC-Wilmington in the tournament. We just have to get those guys to be more consistent. We need early-season John Gilreath. Parker Coyne is going to continue to develop. TJ Shook hopefully makes a jump physically and gets a little more velocity. The pieces are there, we just have to urge them to step up. And a big part of that is going to be in the weight room.
"When you have a lot of young guys, they are going to be physically weak. That's just how it works. But I know these guys have been challenged and I think they will answer the bell on getting stronger and as they get stronger their confidence will go up more and I think these guys will all be better than they were last year. We are going to rely on some new guys, some of those junior-college arms I think will be very good. Some of the high school kids will be good. We will have a couple of additional left-handers, which will diversify our bullpen a little bit. … I had a group text with all the pitchers the other day [and I told them] if they don't work at a level they have never gotten to before, then they are wasting their time, and I think that they will do that because they got close. They were able get a sniff of how close we were to Omaha this year when maybe that wasn't the outside expectation. … The last game did not go how anybody wanted, we all get that. But I hope that that moment inspires all of those young guys who struggled that night to say, 'I don't want to ever have this happen to me again, I am going to up my game, I'm going to be better, I'm going to be more consistent.'"
What do Logan and Carmen need to work on this summer? What's the biggest key for them to take the next step?
"For me, it's pretty simple. Logan just has to continue to shorten up that arm stroke so he can be more consistent with his command. And Carmen just needs to realize that he has to compete at his max level every single pitch. And both of them will do it because they both have a lot of want-to and drive. That, along with getting stronger. Logan is a skinny kid. Carmen is getting stronger, but he could be an animal. So that part will fall on them and I know [strength and conditioning] Coach [Billy] Anderson will take care of that. I just think many times freshmen, they just don't understand how to be locked in all the time because they have always won on just pure stuff. And in the SEC, you don't win on pure stuff. You win on consistency, you win on command and you win just out-willing people. And those guys will do that. I believe in them wholeheartedly."
What did you learn most about being a coach at South Carolina?
"It's awesome to have such a microscope on you. If you are any sort of competitor in any realm, player or coach, you do this because you want people to respect what you do and we all, whether people admit it or not, we all have an ego, we all want people to think that we are doing a great job and putting on a great effort. So you play at South Carolina to play in the best league in the country for the best fan base in the country and to be able to play in front of 8,000 people a night. The same things carry over as a coach. The way our fans are, the way the community knows who you are, knows what you are doing, that is certainly different than other places I have coached. I was aware of it, but once you are actually engulfed in it, I think it's really cool. Me and Coach Kingston have talked about his before. Some people would get to a place like South Carolina and feel like they have arrived and they would rest on their laurels and what got them to have that opportunity like this. But what we talked about was how much it motivates us to work and to be the best version of ourselves. Are we going to be perfect? Absolutely not. I made multiple mistakes this year at times, but they were never for lack of preparation or lack of mental effort or physical effort. Sometimes you make mistakes, but what I respect is, the fans here, they are so passionate about our program and they are invested in our players. It is really cool. I can't go anywhere around town or around the state and people not understand where our program came from this year and the ups and downs of what we had and getting to a point where we're 27 outs from going to Omaha. … Everyone is unhappy unless you are the one team that dog-piles in Omaha at the end, but when you sit back and reflect on the growth we made, I think you are allowed to at least smile a little bit as a fan, coach and player about how 2018 ended up."
— For more of Meade's interview, see the July issue of Spurs & Feathers on July 25.