Matt Connolly

Gamecocks pitching staff has potential to be best in school history

South Carolina’s baseball program has had its share of strong pitching staffs in its storied history, but this year’s group has the potential to be as good, if not better, than all of them.

The Gamecocks boast three proven starters in Clarke Schmidt, Wil Crowe and Adam Hill, as well as a bullpen led by preseason All-American closer Tyler Johnson.

Add in reliable setup guys Reed Scott and Josh Reagan, to go along with hard-throwing newcomers Sawyer Bridges and Cody Morris, and USC has everything it needs to have a special group.

“We’ve got some talented guys that we’re going to give the ball to,” Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook said. “We do have some depth. We do have some experience. That certainly makes me feel good as we go into the year.”

Holbrook believes he has three aces in Schmidt, Crowe and Hill – and the numbers back him up.

Schmidt was 9-5 with a 3.40 ERA and had 129 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings pitched as a sophomore. Crowe was a Freshman All-American in 2014 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015, while Hill was undefeated as a freshman, going 7-0 with a 3.53 ERA last year.

Schmidt will get the ball when the Gamecocks open the season Friday against UNC Greensboro, with Crowe and Hill following him in the rotation.

“Those are our three best guys and I couldn’t have gone wrong with any order that I put them in. Somebody has to start Friday and Clarke is a returning Friday-night guy,” Holbrook said. “Wil has been off a couple of years and he can kind of get a feel for the first day being in the dugout. He’ll be ready to go on Saturday. That doesn’t mean we’ll stay with that order all year long. Clarke has been a Friday-night guy, Wil has been a Friday-night guy and both are capable of doing it. Adam threw Sunday last year, so that was the thinking.”

Johnson entered his sophomore season as a bit of an unknown before exploding onto the scene in 2016. He made 29 appearances, going 3-2 with a 2.42 ERA and nine saves.

The Virginia native was particularly impressive in SEC play, finishing with eight saves in conference games.

Johnson also excelled in the postseason as he was named the NCAA Regional MVP after pitching 10 1/3 innings while allowing one run in the Columbia Regional. Johnson tossed his first career complete game against one of the top hitting teams in the country in UNCW while allowing one run. The junior pitched for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer.

“Those last three outs are awfully hard to get sometimes,” Holbrook said. “It’s very comforting to know that we’ve got an experienced guy with great stuff that doesn’t walk people and throws strikes. We’ve got a guy back there that has been very successful.”

The pitchers in charge of getting the ball from the starters to Johnson include Reagan, Scott, Morris and Bridges.

Reagan began last year as the closer and performed well, leading the team with a 2.08 ERA. The lefty went 3-2 with 11 saves in 2016.

Scott was third on the team with a 2.56 ERA, while going 4-1 and earning two saves.

“We do have some experience and depth and guys that have gotten some big outs and had some big moments in SEC play. That’s very comforting,” Holbrook said.

Morris and Bridges haven’t performed in games at the college level yet, but have impressed in scrimmages and practices.

Morris sat out last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but was rated as the No. 70 high school prospect in the county by Baseball American for the 2015 MLB draft.

“He actually led our team in earned run average in the fall. … He’s gonna get a lot of opportunities. He’s a big part of our pitching staff,” Holbrook said. “We just need to get him some experience first, and then maybe come SEC play, he’ll be in a more defined role.”

Bridges is a freshman who has earned an opportunity to see the mound early on in his career country.

“He’s made maybe the biggest improvement of anyone on our pitching staff in the fall up to this point. He’s certainly going to pitch some big innings for us,” Holbrook said. “Hopefully, he can help us get the ball to Tyler late in the game from time-to-time. He might be called on if Tyler’s down to get the final three outs here or there.”

While USC’s pitching staff appears historically strong on paper, Holbrook warned that living up to expectations is easier said than done.

The Gamecocks still have to go out and prove it on the field.

“We’ve got some depth. We’ve got some guys that have pitched well. That doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to go out and pitch shutouts every time,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to play behind them as well and give them some run support because they’re not going to be perfect every time out. That’s not who they are. They’re good, but they’re not going to pitch shutouts. We’re going to have to do some things behind them. Hopefully, we have the type of team that can do that.”

USC vs. UNC Greensboro

When: 4 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Founders Park, Columbia

Watch: SEC Network Plus (WatchESPN app)

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