By Jeff Owens | Photo by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina has won two huge games the past two days and captured its first SEC series of the season Saturday with back-to-back wins over Kentucky.
But there has been another development that might be even more important for the future of Gamecock baseball.
Several freshmen played big roles in the two victories, giving the coaching staff and Gamecock Nation perhaps a glimpse of the future.
Freshmen Brady Allen and Wes Clarke both hit home runs in Saturday’s 11-3 win and combined to drive in six of the 11 runs. Allen, who has started all season in the outfield, was 3-for-5 with 3 RBI while Clarke, who has gotten at-bats recently at DH, went 2-for-4 with 3 RBI and his first career home run.
Andrew Eyster, who head coach Mark Kingston considers a freshman since he played only one season of junior-college baseball, also had another hit a night after going 2-for-4 and hitting the game-winning home run in the 5-4 win Friday. He is second on the team with a .297 batting average.
Even bench and utility player Jonah Beamon contributed to the win Friday with a perfectly executed squeeze bunt for a hit and an RBI and playing outstanding defense at second base.
Three freshmen pitchers combined for the win Friday night, with Cam Tringali going 5.2 innings, Dylan Harley getting the win with 2.1 scoreless innings and Brett Kerry picking up his sixth save. Kerry finished off Kentucky again Saturday with three innings of scoreless relief.
The rapid improvement of the freshmen gives Kingston and Gamecock fans hope for the future in the midst of a 26-24 season.
“We’re trying to finish this season out as strong as we can but we’re also trying to figure out what pieces will help us in the future,” Kingston said. “Wes Clarke looked today like he’s an option and Brady Allen has been getting better as the season has gone on. Andrew Eyster has hit his stride as a hitter. There are a lot of pieces to be encouraged by.”
South Carolina has 13 freshmen on its roster and five sophomores with limited experience. Kingston says it takes time for young players to adjust to college baseball, especially the SEC.
“The jump from high school to the SEC is about the same as the jump from A-ball to the big leagues,” he said. “It has taken these guys time. It takes most freshmen time. You look at the freshmen stats around our league, it’s hard to find freshmen who hit .300 or have ERAs under three. It’s a hard adjustment.”
“It takes some time,” says Allen, who has struggled at the plate and his hitting .229 for the year. “At first, a brand-new setting, the best competition, the best league in college baseball. It’s a grind. You have to come in and work your butt off every single day and give it all you’ve got.
“Our teammates, we all get together and talk about hitting and stuff like that so we are always helping each other out. Great coaches, always helping. We annoy the heck out of them but we really appreciate what they do and it’s helped a lot. It’s a combination of that and time.”
With so many young players and another big recruiting class slated for next season, Kingston will have some hard decisions to make following this season. Some of the players on this year’s team may not return next season due to roster restrictions.
“The key is figuring out which ones will make the adjustment eventually,” he said. “You have to do a good job of evaluating that.”