T.J. Hopkins expects to play more than 60 games during the 2019 season, and Mark Kingston expects him to be one of the country’s best players when he does, but everyone involved with South Carolina baseball is taking it slow when it comes to the Gamecocks senior outfielder.
“His health right now is very good,” Kingston said. “He has made a very big commitment to be in the rehab room every day. His prehab as we call it is at the highest level so I think he’s made the commitment necessary to try to stay healthy. Obviously there are things that are out of your hands but in terms of getting healthy and doing the things he needs to to stay healthy, he’s where he needs to be. Now we just need fate to smile on us.”
It didn’t last year. Hopkins was limited to 37 games by a litany of injuries, the most serious being a fractured vertebrae in his back that kept him out of the lineup throughout the postseason.
“I don’t know the exact date it happened or what even happened,” he said. “It just happened over time I think.”
It probably happened in the batting cage, where Hopkins now says he was spending too much time in past years. His daily routine often featured more than 300 swings, he said.
“He knows he needed to make some changes,” said South Carolina junior pitcher Sawyer Bridges who was also Hopkins’ teammate at Summerville High School. “He loves to hit. Nobody is going to outwork T.J. but it kind of got him hurt. It kind of wore him down a little bit. This last year I have seen him take more priority swings and not as much just swinging to go out there and swing. I think that’ll be a big change for him.”
Hopkins is now on a swing count and performs a physical therapy session every day at the ballpark.
“I’m not even allowed to hit off the machine,” he said. “I’ve taken probably 30 swings off the machine where everyone else has probably taken 1,000. I’m just hitting off the tee, getting loose then just going straight to (batting practice).”
The lack of swings has not negatively impacted him, he said.
“I have always hit a lot. As I’ve gotten older, I have realized that’s not the way to go about it,” he said. “I’ve been going with it, and my swing feels better than ever. I have put the work in and I’m just ready to get going.”
Hopkins hit .345 last season with 24 RBI and two home runs. For his career, he’s a .300 hitter with 70 RBI and eight home runs.
“If he’s healthy and playing like we all know he can play, he’s one of the premier players in the country,” Kingston said. “He’s a five-tool player. I don’t know for sure what our record was last year when he played, but I know it was really good.”
The Gamecocks were 25-12 with Hopkins in the lineup last year and 12-14 without him.
“He’s a key part for us,” Kingston said.
The plan is for him to be an even bigger part in Kingston’s second year. Hopkins will hit in the top third of the lineup this season, Kingston said.
“I am just so excited to get going. I really don’t set goals,” Hopkins said. “I just want to be healthy all season and help this team win as much as I can.”