The very newest member of South Carolina baseball won’t have to wait long to make an impact for the Gamecocks, partly because of the team’s desperate need, but also due to his unusual freshman poise.
USC head coach Mark Kingston and his squad, including early enrollee pitcher John Gilreath, took the field at Founders Park for three scrimmages this past weekend, opening their spring schedule ahead of their season opener against VMI on Feb. 16.
In those three scrimmages, Gilreath, a left-hander who graduated from his high school in Rock Hill, S.C., a semester early to join the program, threw three innings, starting on Monday and working his way out of several jams.
A baseball player leaving high school early is an extremely unusual move, but South Carolina is in an unusual position — without Gilreath, the Gamecocks would have had just two left-handed pitchers on its roster this season. So Kingston presented Gilreath with the opportunity to come in and have an immediate chance to contribute, and the 5-foot-11 hurler, who went 11-0 with a 1.33 ERA in his junior season, accepted.
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On Monday, however, Kingston said Gilreath’s handedness is not the only reason he wanted him on the team as quickly as possible.
“He looks like a guy that will probably be able to help us some,” Kingston said. “The lefties we have need to show they can throw strikes, that they’re going to have the composure to do the job once they’re out there, and so far he looks like he might be able to do that.”
Overall, Kingston downplayed his pitching staff’s lack of left-handers as an issue and said all three on the team will not get time on the mound solely because they’ll provide the Gamecocks with a different look.
“I’ve had teams where I haven’t had a ton of lefties I could use. You just have to use what you have,” Kingston said. “I think we’ll try to find the right spots for the guys we have, but they’re going to have to earn their innings as well.”
Leadoff spot contenders
At media day last week, Kingston said his lineup is still far from settled going, but after three practices, he named two main contenders for USC’s leadoff spot.
On one hand, junior outfielder TJ Hopkins spent the most time leading off for the Gamecocks last season, and he enjoyed a strong weekend, stringing together multiple hits, RBIs and runs. On the other, freshman Noah Campbell has received high praise from Kingston and is considered a contender to start right away at second base.
“I mean Campbell is going to be considered up there. Hopkins is going to be considered up there. At this point, I’d say those are the two top options we have in terms of guys who will take pitches, but also when you throw a strike they can hammer it,” Kingston said. “They’re two guys that are really big in the mix to be considered for that leadoff spot and maybe the two hole as well, so you might see both those guys there.”
If Campbell does get the nod, he’ll give South Carolina a dangerous option on the base path, even if he struggles to hit, Kingston said.
“Twice this week he scored a run without the benefit of a hit. He walked, he stole second, he stole third and he scored on a sacrifice fly. Today he walked, he moved to second on a wild pitch, he stole third and scored on another sacrifice fly,” Kingston said of Campbell. “So that kind of stuff helps an offense. Because sometimes it’s hard to group hits together, and he can give you some instant offense. So he’s a tough out, he can drive the ball, but also once he gets on base, he tends to score because of his speed.”
South Carolina opens its season on Feb. 16 against VMI at Founders Park.