By Jeff Owens/File photo by Allen Sharpe
Opening day for college baseball is just one week away and Mark Kingston’s second team looked ready to roll Friday.
South Carolina’s eighth preseason scrimmage was one of its best as Kingston and has staff saw both an explosive offense and two solid pitching performances from pitchers competing for a spot in the weekend rotation.
The two squads banged out 16 hits Friday with two home runs and five extra-base hits. The two teams combined to score 17 runs but most of them came with timely hitting in simulated bases-loaded situations.
On the mound, junior-college transfer Reid Morgan and sophomore John Gilreath both shined, throwing four solid innings each in a battle for a spot in the starting rotation.
Morgan allowed just three hits, didn’t walk a batter and struck out six in four innings of work. He gave up a 2-run single in the simulated bases-loaded situation but came back to strike out two batters to get out of the inning.
Morgan excelled by keeping his pitches low in the strike zone and moving them in and out on the corners.
“He has elite location of his pitches,” Kingston said. “He’s 89-90 [mph] and he has movement on the fastball. He throws a good slider and he really competes.”
Gilreath, who made three starts as a freshman, was also sharp, allowing just four hits, one walk and striking out two while keeping hitters off balance with his change-up and curve ball. He gave up two hits with the bases loaded, but got a strikeout to get out of the inning. Kingston said the young left-hander was “tremendous today.”
Both Morgan and Gilreath took a big step forward in the battle for a rotation spot. Right-hander Carmen Mlodzinski is expected to be South Carolina’s Friday night starter and get the nod on opening day Feb. 15. Kingston said freshman left-hander Dylan Harley is also “really close” to locking down a rotation spot after three outstanding outings during preseason scrimmages.
“We’re not ready to officially announce our starting rotation, but he’s done everything that needs to be done,” he said.
Morgan and Gilreath are the other two candidates, along with sophomore right-hander TJ Shook.
Hitters gaining ground
While the pitchers have generally been ahead of the hitters, which is typically the case during preseason, the hitters made up some big ground Friday, battering freshmen relievers Cam Tringali and Wesley Sweatt and producing in the bases-loaded situations.
“I think the hitters have made some really nice strides,” Kingston said. “They are getting their timing and I think we are getting pretty close to 50-50.”
Seven players had multi-hit games Friday. Junior-college transfer Andrew Eyster, who has displayed impressive power and a strong bat in camp, was 3-for-4 with three RBI. TJ Hopkins was 2-for-4 and hit a long home run over the bullpen in right-center field. Noah Campbell, Chris Cullen, Nick Neville, Quinntin Perez and Jonah Beamon also had two hits each.
Perez, who looks like he will be a valuable utility player, also hit a home run to right-center, while Cullen had a double and two RBI and Neville had a double, a triple and two RBI.
The Gamecocks have hit several home runs during the preseason and Friday was not the first multi-homer day. Kingston believes that could be a sign of things to come with this team.
“Power has always been a part of this program. It’s something that I value very much, so we want power to be a big part of it,” he said. “We think the raw power among our offensive players is very similar to last year, just how often will they be able to do it in games? Hopefully we are making enough progress to where we are going to get power in games as well.”
Cullen has had a great camp offensively, with two more hits Friday, and has greatly improved his defense. He is expected to be the opening day catcher with Luke Berryhill backing him up and serving as the primary DH.
Kingston is pleased with the progress of his senior catcher, who lost 25 pounds during the offseason and is moving well behind the plate two years after knee surgery.
“His catching is better, his blocking is better, his throwing is better and his offense has really come along,” he said. “He’s made some nice adjustments. He’s getting to balls he didn’t use to get to.”
Cullen and Berryhill both threw out runners attempting to steal Friday and Berryhill also has made good progress defensively. Kingston wants his bat in the lineup every day.
“Right now Berryhill has done enough that if he is not catching to be our DH,” Kingston said. “He can help you in a lot of ways. He has big-time power but he is also a 6.7 runner so he can steal a base and he can go first to third. He’s done enough so far to be very strong as our DH.”
Neville, another junior-college transfer, looks like he will be the starting shortstop. He continues to improve offensively and has some pop with the bat.
“Neville is playing good baseball right now,” Kingston said. “He has made some improvement and made some adjustments.”
George Callil has been battling an injury and did not hit on Friday. He should be back by opening day and gives the Gamecocks a good glove. Callil, Beamon and Perez all look like they can play multiple positions in the infield.
Perhaps the most fierce battle on the team is for the starting first base job and Kingston has a tough decision to make there. Both sophomore Jordan Holladay and freshman Josiah Sightler have displayed impressive power and are working hard to improve defensively. Kingston says they are about even defensively and could wind up platooning to start the season.
“[It comes down to] who is going to hit the most,” he said. “You have to make a short-term and long-term decision. Sometimes a guy may be a little bit ahead of another guy but the ceiling for one guy is higher so you think with enough at-bats, one pass will pass him eventually. We have some good options over there.”
Freshman outfielder Ian Jenkins, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, tweaked his knee about a week and a half ago and has a brace on his right knee. Kingston said he should be able to starting swinging a bat again in about two weeks.
Jacob Olson missed Friday’s session with the flu but is expected to be ready for opening day next week.
The Gamecocks will scrimmage again Saturday at 2 p.m. Sunday’s scrimmage has been canceled.