By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Most SEC baseball teams release their starting pitching rotation days in advance of a weekend conference series.
That’s if they have a set rotation. South Carolina’s Mark Kingston has a different approach. With a young pitching staff still trying to find its way, Kingston is starting true freshman Wesley Sweatt on Friday night against Georgia followed by staff ace Reid Morgan on Saturday. The Sunday starter? TBA.
For the No. 22 Gamecocks (14-3), the Sunday starter likely will be Brett Kerry, TJ Shook or the best reliever still available.
“What that does is give us some flexibility with some guys who are swing guys,” Kingston said. “You are looking at Shook, you are looking at Kerry, some guys who could potentially help you win on Friday or Saturday, and if you don’t need them in those games could potentially start for you on Sunday.
“There are other guys too who are in that mix as well who could come in and help us out in the bullpen or start on Sunday. At this point in the week, we just don’t want to hamstring ourselves and put us in a situation that might cost us a game.”
South Carolina (14-3) opens SEC play at home this weekend against No. 8 Georgia (15-2). The Bulldogs, who swept South Carolina in Athens last year, sport a strong pitching staff. They have a team ERA of 2.49 (sixth in the SEC), while the Gamecocks are at 3.95 (11th in the SEC).
Georgia will start ace Emerson Hancock (4-0, 0.38) against Sweatt on Friday and left-hander C.J. Smith (2-0, 0.00) against Morgan on Saturday. Right-hander Tony Locey (3-0, 2.45) is scheduled to start Sunday for Georgia.
Sweatt (1-0, 1.69 in 10.2 innings) began the season in the bullpen but made his first career start last week against Valparaiso. He allowed just one earned run and three hits in four innings before a rain delay ended his outing. He has eight strikeouts across his five appearances and opponents are hitting just .194 against him.
“His numbers show that he is one of our better pitchers right now,” Kingston said. “Where we are, he gives us the best option on Friday night. He is throwing strikes, he’s had good success.”
While being a Friday night starter in SEC play brings a tremendous amount of pressure, Kingston liked what he saw from Sweatt at Clemson, where he relieved injured starter Carmen Mlodzinski and had a solid two-inning appearance in a game South Carolina won 5-4.
“He threw on Friday night against Clemson, on the road. He showed us that he could handle it,” Kingston said. “It was almost like he had started that game, and that was on the road in a hostile environment and he handled it very, very well. It’s not ideal to throw a freshman out there on Friday night in the SEC but that is what we need to do right now and I think he is mature enough to handle it.”
The Gamecocks have been led by Morgan, the only pitcher who has made more than three starts and one of just two who have gone more than six innings in a start. The junior-college right-hander leads the SEC with 29.1 innings pitched and is 2-0 with a 1.84 ERA with 27 strikeouts against just one walk.
Morgan’s ability to pitch deep into games is one reason Kingston is comfortable possibly leaning on his bullpen on Friday and Saturday. If Morgan delivers another six- or seven-inning quality start, it could conceivably allow Kingston to use Kerry (2-0, 1.88) and Shook (2-0, 2.84) or others on Friday and Sunday. For instance, Kerry or Shook could pitch two or three innings on Friday and, with a day off in between, could also be available to start or relieve on Sunday.
“That’s one of the reasons why we think Reid on Saturday is the best option because so far this year he has been our innings eater and taken the most amount of pressure off our bullpen,” Kingston said. “That would allow, you hope, guys to pitch maybe Friday-Sunday instead of consecutive days. … All of our bullpen guys you hope to get two appearances out of them on the weekend.”
Another pitcher who could be used heavily this weekend and might be a candidate to start Sunday is Daniel Lloyd. The freshman from Summerville has thrown only 5.2 innings so far (2-0, 4.76) but he started Tuesday at The Citadel. Lloyd pitched only 2.1 innings (39 pitches), however, so he could be available to pitch against this weekend.
“He’s going to be a big part of the bullpen for us, there’s no question about it,” Kingston said. “He’s got great stuff, he’s developing, he seems pretty comfortable out there right now. As long as he’s throwing strikes, he has a chance to help us.”
So will the other 10 pitchers in the bullpen as the Gamecocks continue to develop a starting rotation.
“We have to use everybody on the weekend. Everybody has to be available for us,” Kingston said.