The biggest questions facing South Carolina baseball with first pitch three weeks away

·5 min read
Jeff Blake/Jeff Blake Photo

College baseball season is less than a month away.

Coming off a 34-23 (16-14 SEC) 2021 campaign, the South Carolina baseball team is hoping to push for a deeper postseason run beyond NCAA regionals. As head coach Mark Kingston has said himself since the season ended, last year was a good season, but, “We’re still looking for great seasons.”

Any run the Gamecocks make, they’ll have to pull off with a different cast of characters after losing eight players to professional baseball. The first team scrimmages are at 2:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Founders Park, and are open to the public. The season opens Feb. 18, kicking off with a home series against UNC Greensboro.

In preseason rankings, South Carolina sits outside both the D1Baseball.com and Baseball America Top 25 lists, but the Gamecocks don’t lack talent. For USC to improve on last season, it will have to answer a few key questions.

1. Can the new coaching staff make a positive impact?

Though Kingston signed a contract extension after the season, his coaching staff underwent significant changes.

Pitching coach Skylar Meade left to become head coach at Troy, while recruiting coordinator Trip Couch left for the same role at Arizona. In their places, Kingston tabbed former Indiana assistant Justin Parker as USC’s new pitching coach and former Texas A&M assistant Chad Caillet as its new coordinator. In addition, College World Series hero Scott Wingo replaced longtime assistant Stuart Lake.

Parker comes highly touted from Indiana, where he helped lead one of the top pitching staffs in the country. Caillet, meanwhile, is tasked with injecting life in an offense that slumped down the stretch last season.

2. What is USC’s offensive identity?

Last year’s Gamecocks lineup relied on its power with an all-or-nothing approach. The home run heroics of Wes Clarke buoyed USC early in the season, but near the tail end of the year, the strikeouts started to pile up and runs became scarce.

This year’s offense is bound to have a different flavor, in part because of new hitting coach Caillet’s arrival, but also because USC lost anchors Clarke and Brady Allen to the MLB Draft. Coming off a breakout sophomore season and a summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, Braylen Wimmer should attract scouting interest this spring as a dynamic 6-foot-4, 200-pound blend of speed and power. He could see time at second base, in the outfield and perhaps shortstop. Leading hitter Andrew Eyster returns for a “super senior” season under COVID-19 rules, and along with Wimmer, outfielder Josiah Sightler and catcher Colin Burgess, the Gamecocks boast an experienced core.

Over the next three weeks of scrimmages, Kingston and his staff will need to figure out which of the team’s newcomers round out the rest of the lineup. Kingston had said in the fall he thought this team would hit for less power but score in other ways. Does speed become the identity of this team? Expect more balance between left-handed and right-handed hitters, something that was a priority for the Gamecocks this offseason.

“I think we need to figure out are we going to be lean more towards the speed side and play speed guys, or are we going to lean more towards the power guys?” Kingston said Thursday. “What type of team do we want to be? And we need to figure out is it going to be different based on the conditions and the opponents and all those things that go into it?”

3. Are Sanders and Bosnic ready to take the next step?

In a conference as deep as the SEC, a team’s success largely hinges on the strength of its pitching staff. Without question, projected Friday and Saturday starters Will Sanders and Julian Bosnic are that staff’s most important pieces.

Losing Swiss Army knife Brett Kerry to pro ball hurts, as does losing starter Thomas Farr. But Sanders and Bosnic have both flashed dominance and have the stuff to compete with the SEC’s top pitchers.

The 6-foot-6 Sanders went 6-3 with a 3.54 ERA last season as a true freshman, thriving in both a late-inning role and as a Sunday starter. He touches the mid-90s with his fastball and pairs it with a biting split-changeup, but he could jump another level with the improvement of his breaking ball. Kingston said Parker, the new pitching coach, has been working with Sanders on a refined breaking ball, giving him a swing-and-miss option.

The junior left-hander Bosnic spurned the draft after going in the 16th round, and he has room to build his stock as a lefty with a mid-90s fastball and power breaking ball. Bosnic pitched primarily in relief last season, striking out 78 batters in 50.2 innings and posting a 2.84 ERA.

“Julian Bosnic is not getting nearly the respect he should be getting right now in my opinion,” Kingston said. “It’s hard to understand why with his stats and with this stuff, he’s not getting more respect nationally than he is. But I can tell you it’s not a lack of respect in this building. Everybody here knows how good he is.”

4. Can the newcomers make a difference?

One way or another, the Gamecocks will need to lean on newcomers in both the starting lineup and pitching staff. Transfers like Missouri outfielder/first baseman Brandt Belk and Vanderbilt outfielder Matt Hogan are two left-handed bats that could platoon or start. Freshmen such as top recruit Michael Braswell and Thad Ector could vie for playing time as well.

Kingston pointed to junior college transfer James Hicks and former Appalachian State right-hander Noah Hall as options to start on Sunday, along with other options like redshirt freshman Cade Austin and veterans Wesley Sweatt and Cam Tringali.

“I like our new guys,” Kingston said. “The transfers, I think will have an impact, no question about it. I think this young group, especially hitters right now, are all going to be fighting to impact our games. And so I feel good about where it is.”