By Jeff Owens | Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
“The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my Salvation.” — Psalm 118:14
After completing his warm-up tosses, Reid Morgan steps off the pitcher’s mound and turns his back to the catcher. He takes off his cap, bows his head and prays.
“I just ask Him for his help and to get me through the game. And for Him to be there for me and never doubt me,” he says. “It always helps me.”
Morgan, a junior-college transfer from Kingwood, Texas, doesn’t look like a typical ballplayer. With his golden, curly locks flowing from beneath his flat-bill cap, his eyes shining bright behind a pair of Oakley glasses and a sleeve of colorful tattoos snaking down his left arm, he looks more like a rock star than a baseball pitcher.
But it is the message behind the tattoos — the white dove, the red rose, the Bible verse — that form the foundation of Reid Morgan. Like the pair of silver crosses hanging from his neck, it is the foundation of who he is and what he stands for.
Like his favorite scripture says, his faith in Jesus Christ is the source of his strength and his defense.
It is that strength that has helped Morgan become South Carolina’s weekend ace and one of the best pitchers in the SEC.
“It’s my testimony,” Morgan says. “My faith is really big. I grew up in a faith-based family and everything that I do, everything that I know is through faith.”
Morgan (3-2 with a 3.47 ERA) will make his 10th start of the season Thursday night against Texas A&M. He made the weekend rotation with a strong preseason and quickly emerged as South Carolina’s most dependable starter on a pitching-thin team. In just his third career start, he delivered the pitching performance of the year, shutting down Clemson in a decisive Game 3 that gave the Gamecocks their first series win over their archrival in five years.
He prepares for each start the only way he knows how — by praying, sharing his inner-most thoughts and fears with fellow Christians, and by studying his Bible, which to him is more important than any scouting report or playbook.
“It helps me just calm my body down,” he says. “In times like this, going into a big weekend, I just drill into my Bible and try to find verses that will calm myself down.”
Source of Strength
“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” — Philippians 4:13
That verse highlights Morgan’s Twitter profile. Like the Psalm on his left bicep, it has guided him through some tough times.
A native of Kingwood, Texas near Houston, Morgan was one of the top high school pitcher in southeast Texas. He signed with Oklahoma State as a junior, but suffered an arm injury and missed his senior season after having Tommy John surgery.
Though Oklahoma State honored his scholarship, Morgan was used sparingly as a freshman, pitching just five innings out of the bullpen. After the season, head coach Josh Holliday told him it might be best for him to move on.
With his career at a crossroads, Morgan transferred to San Jacinto College, a junior-college powerhouse near Houston that has produced such Major League pitchers as Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.
At San Jac, Morgan worked with former big-league pitcher Woody Williams, whose son, Caden, played on the team. Williams joined the staff as a volunteer pitching coach and helped Morgan develop his trademark sinker and the mental fortitude it takes to be a successful pitcher.
It paid off with a big season for both Morgan and his team. He played a prominent role in the bullpen, compiling a 2-1 record and 3.10 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 40.2 innings as San Jac advanced to the NJCAA World Series for the 20th time in school history.
What initially looked like a major setback in his baseball career turned into a blessing.
“That was probably the best decision I ever made, going there and getting experience and getting my confidence back,” Morgan said.
“I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason and we couldn’t have asked for a better path,” said Scot Morgan, Reid’s dad. “Through his foundation and his faith, that’s where we took it and we went with it, this door was opening for a reason. It worked out wonderfully.”
While at San Jacinto, Morgan reconnected with South Carolina Director of Player Development Trip Couch, who was an assistant coach at the University of Houston before joining Mark Kingston’s staff. Couch had recruited Morgan in high school and liked what he saw from him in junior college. With the Gamecocks in desperate need of pitchers after losing three hurlers to the MLB Draft, it was Couch who brought Morgan to South Carolina.
“We had a connection there and knowing him for a while made it an easier decision, knowing I am coming into a program where I know one of the coaches personally,” Morgan said. “They just all made it feel like home.”
Scot Morgan, who travels from Texas to all of Reid’s games, had visited Columbia before and knew it was the perfect place for his son.
“We visited a lot of other places but I had been here before and knew he was going to love it,” he said at Founders Park prior to Reid’s start against Georgia. “The landscape is a lot like home and the folks are wonderful. It’s a long way from home, but it has been awesome for him.”
Like his son, he believes South Carolina is where God was leading them.
“We just kinda stood on the foundation and said, ‘the Good Lord is going to take you where he is going to take you, and you take advantage of where he takes you,’” he said. “I think that is what has happened.”
“It’s nice to be here now, playing for the Gamecocks,” Reid said.
One of the first people Morgan met when he moved to Columbia was former Gamecock pitcher Braden Webb, who is now pitching in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Webb’s agent is also Morgan’s advisor, so the two met through him. They bonded, though, over their tattoos.
Like Morgan, Webb is a devout Christian and his tattoos tell the story of his faith. While hanging out one night at the home of some South Carolina players, Webb and Morgan shared the stories of their faith and the meaning behind their visual testimonies.
“We’re just sitting there talking and he’s like, ‘what is this tattoo? What’s the story behind it?’” Webb said. “… He was like, ‘I’ve got this one because of this.’ … It was definitely something that connected the two of us, the stories behind the ink that we have on our bodies.”
Mogan and Webb quickly became close friends. Though they are separated by thousands of miles — Webb in Double-A in Mississippi, Morgan in Columbia — they communicate frequently, talking baseball, sharing their faith and helping hold each other accountable. They FaceTime every week before a weekend series and sometimes on game day before Morgan pitches.
“We have become really close and he has really helped me a lot,” Morgan said.
Like Morgan, Webb has endured his own struggles throughout his baseball career. A high school All-American, he was one of the top pitchers in the nation coming out of Owasso High School in Oklahoma. But before he ever threw a pitch for South Carolina, he had to have Tommy John surgery that delayed his college career by more than a year.
When he finally took the mound in 2016, he was one of the best pitchers in the country, finishing with a 10-6 record with a 3.09 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 102 innings to make the SEC All-Freshman team. He was drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers and has climbed to Double-A, where he will start this season in Biloxi, Miss.
Through his college and pro career, Webb discovered what successful ballplayers eventually learn — that baseball is a game of failure, one in which the very best fail much more often than they succeed. He has survived and prospered, he says, because of his faith.
“I just try to never let my lows get too low and my highs get too high. I try to stay even-keel all the way through and my faith is something that keeps me level-headed and keeps me humble and it keeps me where I need to be,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s all for His glory. Without Him, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in. I wouldn’t be throwing a baseball when people told me I didn’t have a chance and there was a chance I might not ever throw again.
“To me, everything revolves around faith. … That is a huge reason I am where I am, and I believe the same about Reid and the reason he is having so much success is because he is strong in his faith.”
Like Morgan, Webb has his own pregame ritual. On days when he pitches, he shows up at the ballpark, has some coffee, slips on his favorite Batman hoodie and cranks up some really loud music. About an hour and half before hitting the field, he hits his knees.
“I get down on my knees in front of my locker and I say my prayer and just go about my business,” he said.
Throughout his baseball journey, from the grind of the SEC to the trials of the minor leagues, Webb has encountered a lot of players who count on faith to give them strength. He does his best to share that message with teammates and friends like Morgan.
“If you lose sight of that faith, it’s easy to slip up and I have to do everything I can to stay on this path,” he said. “I see a lot of guys who struggle sometimes with their faith, everybody does. That’s why we’re Christians. We’re not Christians because we have it all together, we’re Christians because we know we are weak and we need a savior. Baseball is a grind but that faith keeps me where I need to be.”
That’s the message he passes along to Morgan, the pitcher following in his footsteps at South Carolina.
“He helps me kinda calm myself down,” Morgan said of Webb. “He’s been in this situation before. He’s a big faith-based guy too. He helps me get through the struggles and anxiety. It just helps a lot to have guys like that to help you get through things like this.”
It is that strength and encouragement that helps Morgan stand up for what he believes in and share his message with others. Even in the face of criticism, he stands firm, letting his faith shine as bright as the silver cross dangling from around his neck.
“People ask me why I do it and I tell them it’s something that helps me get through life and what I am doing that day,” he said. “Sometimes people come up to me and they try to bash me for what I do. I just tell them, this is who I am and this is what I believe, and I am not going to change.”
There are two sides to Reid Morgan when he steps on a baseball field.
There is the disciplined, intensely focused Morgan who reads his Bible before every game and prays with his dad before he takes the field. He’s a calming influence on the field and the biggest cheerleader in the dugout. He helps keep the team loose before games and is one of the first to hug a teammate when he walks off the field.
Then there is the fiery Reid Morgan, the one who stares down batters, pumps his fist after a strikeout and raises his arm in the air when he knows he has coaxed another hitter into a weak ground ball to end an inning — sometimes even before the final out is recorded.
In Game 3 against Clemson, Morgan was facing Bryce Teodosio when the Tiger outfielder lined a pitch foul. Teodosio sprinted down the first-base line, and then casually sauntered back toward home plate, taking his sweet time. Morgan took offense to the batter’s nonchalance.
When he struck him out to end the inning, Morgan glared at him, staring him down so long it seemed for a moment he was going to follow Teodosio all the way back to the Clemson dugout.
“It kinda fired me up to see that he walked back and took his time to get in the box,” Morgan said. “Once I struck him out, I got fired up and looked at him the whole way back to the dugout. It was fun to do that.”
Morgan’s antics not only fired up the Founders Park crowd, it ignited his team, which scored in the bottom of the inning to take a 6-1 lead en route to a 14-3, series-clinching victory.
Morgan pitched 6.2 innings against Clemson, allowing just two earned runs and striking out five to clinch the series. When he walked off the mound in the seventh inning, he was greeted with a standing ovation, a moment he called “the best of my career.”
“Just going through everything I have been through my last few years and not really experiencing the things I wish I could have experienced my freshman year, being able to do what I did [against Clemson] was unbelievable,” he said. “It is going to be with me forever. I will always remember that one time that I walked off the mound and everybody was right behind me supporting me. It was cool to experience that for the first time.”
When Morgan arrived in Columbia last fall, Kingston and pitching coach Skylar Meade had planned to use him in the bullpen. After his success at San Jacinto, he looked like the perfect compliment to closer Sawyer Bridges at the backend of the bullpen.
But when they began searching for starters in the spring, Morgan emerged as a strike-throwing machine and a calming influence for a young staff looking for a leader.
“We had a lot of good candidates for that spot but we landed on Reid for opening weekend because he is a guy who has really good stuff and he is an older guy who has a calm presence about him,” Kingston said.
He proved to be the perfect choice. In his first start, Morgan allowed just six hits and one earned run in a 3-2 win over Liberty. In his second outing, he went eight innings, allowing just six hits and two earned runs while striking out nine in a win over Utah Valley.
After beating Clemson, Morgan moved to the Saturday spot in the rotation and went 8.2 innings and struck out 10 as the Gamecocks scored a dramatic walk-off victory over Valparaiso. After struggling against Georgia, he had another strong outing at Tennessee, setting up the Gamecocks for another dramatic 3-2 win.
A week later, he threw another gem, hurling seven scoreless innings in a 4-0 win over No. 15 Auburn to earn another standing ovation from the Gamecock faithful.
In his first seven starts, Morgan was the ace and anchor of South Carolina’s pitching staff, compiling a 3-1 record and 2.60 ERA. Through nine starts over 57 innings, he struck out 41 batters and walked just nine.
With pinpoint control, Morgan excels at keeping the ball low, changing speeds and mixing in an assortment of breaking pitches, including a nasty slider and what Meade calls a “turbo sinker.” His favorite pitcher growing up was Greg Maddux and like his idol, he loves to paint the corners.
“He has great command,” Kingston said. “He throws all his pitches at the knees on a very consistent basis, which makes him really hard to square up. He’s 90-plus with the fastball and he can add and subtract from it when he needs to and has that slider that can get guys off balance as well. He’s a complete pitcher.”
“He’s tough,” said Clemson head coach Monte Lee. “He pitches to contact and sinks the ball and throws a lot of off-speed stuff that keeps you out front. Just a pure pitcher, a true three-pitch guy who pounds the bottom of the strike zone with three pitches and lets his defense work behind him.”
After spending much of his career as a reliever and preparing for a bullpen role this season, Morgan was thrilled to get a chance to start. Though he continues to pitch from the stretch to control his mechanics and contain his emotions, he has adapted well to being a key pitcher in the all-important weekend rotation.
“I have done every role so it was kinda one of those things where, if my name is called to start, I’m ready. If it’s in the bullpen, I will prepare to be in the bullpen,” he said. “But knowing that I am a starter now, it’s kinda cool to be back in that role.”
His biggest challenge was developing a different mindset. Instead of being a late-inning, shutdown reliever with a bulldog mentality, he had to develop a rhythm, pacing himself to stay in the game as long as possible, while maintaining the tenacity to pitch of out jams and get big outs.
“You have to prepare mentally and physically to go as long as you can for the team so we don’t have to use the bullpen as much,” he said. “I kinda just told myself I was put in this spot for a reason so I might as well have the mentality of a starter and know that I can go deeper in games.”
Webb, who still follows the Gamecocks and tries to watch every game, sees a lot of himself in Morgan.
“I think he’s done an incredible job,” he said. “He’s a starter with a closer’s mentality. He attacks every inning like it’s the ninth inning and I think that’s why he’s had so much success with stepping into that role.”
While Morgan may not look the type, he has both the talent and the mental makeup of a big-time pitcher. And through his faith, he has the strength and character to be an example and inspiration for others.
“He’s a perfect example of, don’t judge a book by its cover,” Kingston said. “When you see the tattoos and the long hair, you might think one thing but he is a great kid and a great teammate and comes from a great family. He’s what you are looking for in a player and a person.”