South Carolina baseball took the next step toward the start of its 2018 campaign Thursday, returning for the preseason and addressing reporters for media day.
And if there was a common theme for new coach Mark Kingston and his players, it was that of guarded optimism, as the Gamecocks start the season unranked and with a talented, but inexperienced, pitching staff.
“I’m just excited to watch our guys get out there,” Kingston said. “They’ve worked extremely hard, they’ve taken everything we’ve asked them to do and run with it, so I’m anxious for our guys to get on the field and see that they’re better players.”
As for the low expectations surrounding his squad, an unusual place for South Carolina to be, Kingston sees that as an opportunity.
“(Pundits) think we can be a good team but they’re not quite sure we’re elite yet, and our job as coaches and players is to get elite as quickly as we can,” he said.
On the mound: Adam Hill, then ...
South Carolina lost almost 70 percent of innings pitched from last season’s team, leaving the ace of the staff obvious: junior righty Adam Hill. Behind him, however there’s a crowd of potential starters and relievers jockeying for position.
“You’re looking at (sophomore right-hander Cody) Morris, you’re looking at the two freshmen, (right-hander Carmen) Mlodzinski and (right-hander) Logan Chapman,” Kingston said. “(Junior right-handed transfer) Eddy Demurias could be considered, (JUCO transfer righty) Ridge Chapman could be considered, (JUCO transfer right-hander) Gage Hinson ... could be considered. So that’s the main group of guys that will be looked at as starters at this point.”
At closer, Kingston mentioned Demurias, Ridge Chapman and sophomore righty Sawyer Bridges as possible contenders, but added that, as with the rest of the team, he will not hesitate to make in-season adjustments if players respond poorly to pressure.
“You can have a closer that has great stuff, and if he’s not a competitor, if he doesn’t love the ball in the ninth inning when 10,000 crazy fans are yelling, maybe he’s not a closer type,” Kingston said. “Makeup matters. Maturity matters. Mound presence matters.”
Even Hill must continue to improve, both he and Kingston said. After a sophomore season in which he posted a 3.04 ERA and struck out 10.2 batters per nine innings, Hill said Thursday that his goal is to stay on the mound longer — in 2017, he averaged 5 1/2 innings per start.
On the field and in the lineup: 13 guys that can, and should, start
The uncertainty surrounding the Gamecocks also extends to their lineup, where they have as many 13 players who “can and should start on any given day,” Kingston said.
“So what we need to figure out is, do we need to platoon in some spots? Do we have a left-right matchup in certain parts of the field? How do the first basemen complement the middle infield, and who’s going to DH?” Kingston said. “A lot of those things need to be figured out, but in terms of narrowing it down to nine guys, we won’t do that, because we have more than nine guys who can start.”
In the mix of those 13, freshman Noah Campbell, senior Justin Row, junior LT Tolbert and senior Madison Stokes will compete for playing time at shortstop and second base, while sophomore Carlos Cortes, junior Jacob Olson, junior Danny Blair, junior TJ Hopkins and freshman Kyle Jacobsen are all options in the outfield
In particular, Kingston said he has high expectations for Cortes, who led USC with 12 home runs last season and picked up All-Freshman team honors from multiple national media outlets.
“He had a great second half of the season last year (and) my goal for him, obviously, is Day 1, he hits at that kind of level but even moreso. He hit below .300 last year. My goal for him is he’s a mid-.300s type hitter, .350 or .360 type hitter,” Kingston said. “He hit 12 homers and didn’t play every day, so I’d like to see his power numbers go up.”
Greg Hadley: @GregHadley9