After seeing pitchers who accounted for 55 percent of last season’s total innings depart the program, South Carolina pitching coach Jerry Meyers knew he was going to need reinforcements.
Enter this season’s freshmen pitchers, who are part of a recruiting class that earned a No. 3 national ranking from Baseball America.
A group headlined by right-handers Wil Crowe, Matthew Vogel, Taylor Widener and Canaan Cropper and lefty Josh Reagan already has shown glimpses of great promise through six weeks of fall practice, which ended Sunday with the completion of the Garnet and Black World Series.
Now it’s a matter of earning innings that once went to Nolan Belcher, Tyler Webb, Adam Westmoreland, Colby Holmes and Patrick Sullivan.
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“To a man, they all came in with an eagerness to fit in and do everything we’ve tried to get them to do from Day 1,” Meyers said. “The work ethic has been great, and the production on the field has been pretty consistent. Obviously, we have a long way to go and things to work on before they get in there for real in the spring.”
Heading into the 2014 season, two roles on the staff appear secure. Junior left-hander Jordan Montgomery and sophomore left-hander Jack Wynkoop are expected to front the three-man weekend rotation. All the other spots, from starter to reliever to closer, are getting plenty of competition.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Crowe, one of the top high school prospects in the nation last season out of Sevierville, Tenn., brings a live arm with good velocity. He’s a strong candidate for one of the starting roles.
“We know Friday and Saturday are locked in, but any other place on the staff is up for grabs. Wherever they put me is fine with me,” Crowe said.
His fellow freshmen also are trying to get the attention of Meyers. The 6-0, 180-pound Vogel, a Medford, N.Y., native, has impressed, but he understands that he must continue to improve before the Feb. 14 opener against Bucknell. He’s ready to contribute, whether he’s standing on the mound or cheering on his teammates from the dugout or bullpen.
“I’m not doing too bad,” Vogel said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the coaches have for us as our roles. They know better than I do.”
Meyers isn’t going to hesitate to use as many freshmen as necessary. He can envision a handful contributing right away.
“That’s not out of the question,” Meyers said. “The new guys are going to have to be part of it. There are some candidates there, depending on which ones are able to be the most consistent and are good enough. With what they’ve done up to this point, they’ve made a case for themselves.”
Meyers likes the ability of the 6-1, 190-pound Widener, who is from South Aiken High. He missed most of fall practice with herniated discs and a pinched nerve. Reagan, a 6-0, 170-pounder who pitched Lexington High to a state championship last spring, already has proven to be a consistent strike-thrower.
Other freshmen vying for innings are right-handers Tyler Haswell, Reed Scott and Jackson Smith as well as left-hander John Parke. Junior-college right-handers Cody Mincey, Preston Johnson and Trey McNickle also are competing for an opportunity.
Vogel said the freshmen have developed camaraderie on and off the field.
“We’ve become really close with each other,” Vogel said. “I actually consider a couple of them my best friends. Everyone is hanging out, and everyone is cool with each other. It’s been fun.”
Crowe, who turned down the opportunity to sign professionally, likes his decision to join the Gamecocks, who finished 43-20 in coach Chad Holbrook’s first season after a series loss against North Carolina in the NCAA Super Regional stopped them from advancing to the College World Series for a fourth straight season.
“I love it here. I’m glad that I’m here. There’s no place I’d rather be,” Crowe said. “Everybody really gets along. We all understand each other, even though we’re from different places. We’re all just trying to mesh, and so far the process has gone really well.”