By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Naturally, the South Carolina baseball team was a bit down Sunday evening. They had just been swept by Georgia for the second straight year and started SEC play 0-3.
Not exactly the way the Gamecocks expected to start conference play after a 14-3 start to the season.
And they lost two of the three games in heartbreaking fashion. The Gamecocks blew a 5-1 lead on Saturday, with three errors and other mental mistakes leading to an 8-7 defeat. On Sunday, they were riding sensational pitching performances from TJ Shook and Brett Kerry and were within three outs of salvaging Game 3 before the Bulldogs scored four in the ninth to win 4-2.
So the Gamecocks were understandably disappointed and down and out after the game. Mark Kingston’s message to his team was not about errors and strikeouts and failure to hit in crucial situations. It was about success and failure, and how to handle devastating defeats and a tough weekend.
“The message was treat success and failure the same,” he said. “When we had a big series a couple of weeks ago, people were patting us on the back. Now I’m sure people will be asking what’s wrong. You have to treat those two imposters the same and just keep working.”
Kingston reminded his team of last season — a constant theme for a 2019 team chock full of young players and newcomers — and how they bounced back from a 1-5 start in SEC play to win 16 of their next 24 conference games to make the NCAA Tournament and advance to within one game of the College World Series. They did it by growing and developing and maturing throughout the season until they were finally ready and peaking at just the right time.
“We have to have growth like we did last year,” he said Sunday night. “We had growth throughout the year. We had some heartbreaks early in the year that we handled the right way and we moved on and improved. We have to do the same thing this year.”
There are obviously some areas of concern after such a disappointing weekend. But there also were some positive developments as well. Here’s a look at what we learned from SEC opening weekend.
Offensive approach breaks down
After hitting 32 home runs — second in the nation — and averaging eight runs per game during non-conference play, the Gamecocks were completely overwhelmed by Georgia’s power arms. With all three starters sitting 95-98 mph and relievers throwing in the high-90s, including touching 99 on occasion, South Carolina hitters struck out 41 times in the three games and have whiffed 200 times in 20 games this season.
South Carolina’s big four — TJ Hopkins, Jacob Olson, Andew Eyster and Luke Berryhill — particularly struggled. The 2-5 hitters in the Gamecock lineup combined to go 8-for-46 with 18 strikeouts and just five RBI. As a team, Carolina scored just 10 runs on 17 hits.
“It was really the velo,” Berryhill said of Georgia’s pitching staff, which is seventh in the nation in strikeouts. “Most big leaguers can’t hit 99 consistently.”
“That’s something you don’t see very often,” said Eyster, who entered the series hitting .355 but went 2-for-13 and struck out nine times.
Kingston warned his team that was just a sample of what they will face every weekend in the SEC. His power-hitting team must make adjustments to hit consistently.
“I told our hitters this is big-boy baseball in terms of the pitching they faced and so guys that have swings that might be a little long, they got a really good lesson on how to make adjustments this weekend,” Kingston said. “If you are going to beat pitching staffs that have guys averaging 96 mph fastballs, there is a certain kind of swing and they got a taste of that.”
“We can do it,” Berryhill said, “we just have to make some adjustments and have a good approach going up to the plate.”
South Carolina made five errors on the weekend, including three critical ones in the middle infield Saturday.
Quinntin Perez played second Saturday and Sunday while Noah Campbell nursed a shoulder injury that limited him to pinch-hitting. Kingston hopes to have Campbell back in the lineup this week.
Perez made an error Saturday and he and shortstop George Callil were less than smooth in the 8-7 loss. They stepped up and played well during an error-less game on Sunday, but South Carolina’s overall defense, particularly in the infield, must improve.
Rotation comes into focus
Despite the three losses, there were some positive signs for South Carolina’s injury-riddled pitching staff, including some possible answers in the rotation.
True freshman Wesley Sweatt got through five innings Friday night before an error to open the sixth led to trouble. Sweatt gave up three runs in the inning when the bullpen couldn’t bail him out of a jam but the rest of his outing was solid.
Though he wound up allowing five runs (four earned), he allowed just two through the first five innings and gave up just five hits. He looks like a solid option for the weekend rotation that should to continue getting better.
Reid Morgan was more unlucky than bad on Saturday. He gave up eight hits but three were infield singles, two on plays that should have been made. He gave up five runs, but four of them came in a four-run fourth when the defense let him down and he should have been out of the inning with little trouble.
He threw 87 pitches and it marked the first time this season he has not gone at least six innings. With Morgan’s pitch-to-contact game, he can pitch deep into games — if his defense shores things up and plays well behind him.
The bullpen also pitched reasonably well on Friday and Saturday. A five-man group gave up just one earned run in four innings following Sweatt Friday night and held Georgia to just one run in five innings after Morgan Saturday.
The biggest bright spot was two bounce-back outings by freshman lefty Dylan Harley, who fired two scoreless innings with four strikeouts on Friday and Saturday. Harley started the season in the weekend rotation but was moved to the bullpen after struggling. If he can harness his command, he has the stuff to bounce back and possibly even recapture a rotation spot.
The highlight of the weekend was the duo of TJ Shook and Brett Kerry, who combined to shut out Georgia for eight innings Saturday. Shook recovered from an almost disastrous start — two walks, one hit batter to load the bases — to strike out six in four scoreless innings. He gave up just one hit and walked only one after the first inning.
Kerry didn’t allow a hit until the ninth, pitching out of a jam in the fifth and shutting down the Bulldogs over the next three innings. He gave up three hits in the ninth, allowing the tying run, before closer Sawyer Bridges gave up a three-run homer to put Georgia up 4-1.
Shook (2-0, 2.16 ERA) and Kerry could be huge factors for the Gamecocks going forward. Shook looks like he can handle the Sunday starter role. If not for the rough first inning Sunday, he would have gone five or six innings, allowing Kerry to finish off Georgia. He has a streak of 12.1 scoreless innings and certainly looks like he has pitched his way into the weekend rotation.
Kerry (2-1, 2.89) might be the most valuable pitcher on the team. He has proven to be the shutdown swing man the Gamecocks need and is capable of shutting down top-20 teams (Clemson and Georgia) over three-plus innings. He also can close (two saves) or start, as he did Game 3 against Valparaiso. After Sunday’s performance, he looks to be at his best coming out of the pen in tight games. Depending on how things fall, he also could be a guy who could make multiple appearances on a weekend.
“Those guys are two really good positives for us,” Kingston said of Shook and Kerry.
The Gamecocks travel to Greenville Tuesday to face Furman at Fluor Field. Freshman Daniel Lloyd, who started last Tuesday at The Citadel, will start against Furman on what is expected to be another bullpen day. Lloyd has been solid in short stints this year and could develop into a valuable bullpen arm if he improves his stamina. South Carolina, meanwhile, needs to continue winning its mid-week games as the wins and outcomes could be critical come tournament time.
Then it’s on to Knoxville for a three-game series against Tennessee, which got off to a hot start but got swept by Auburn last weekend. The Gamecocks swept Tennessee last year to get back on track after a 1-5 start in SEC play. This is the perfect opportunity to bounce back again before facing Auburn at home next weekend.