South Carolina baseball is set to begin fall practices and scrimmages this Thursday — the Gamecocks are trying to bounce back from a historically bad 2019 season in which they finished 28-28 and bowed out of the first round of the SEC tournament.
To that end, coach Mark Kingston has added 17 newcomers to the roster, split among freshmen, junior college transfers and graduate transfers. Baseball America rated USC’s incoming class No. 11 in the nation.
But also crucial to a potential turnaround will be the team’s veterans. Specifically, the Gamecocks get back redshirt sophomore pitcher Carmen Mlodzinski after he missed almost all of last season with a broken foot. Over the summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, Mlodzinski was 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA, striking out 40 batters in 29 1/3 innings and allowing just seven earned runs and four walks.
After starting last year as South Carolina’s Friday night starter, Mlodzinski will enter fall practices once again near the top of the pecking order.
“The second I went and saw Carmen, he was already well into having the great summer that he did in the Cape Cod League,” Kingston. “And just he’s a bigger, stronger guy physically. He’s a more confident guy mentally. His pitches have all taken an uptick in terms of velocity and command and sharpness of the breaking ball. He’s just really developing. And he’s what you want a guy to look like by his junior year, in his draft year. And as I mentioned, he’s rated now as potential first round draft pick.”
Mlodzinski’s draft stock did soar over the summer — Prospects Live, D1Baseball.com and Baseball America all rated him as one of the Cape Cod League’s best prospects. MLB.com had him among its top 15 college draft prospects for 2020, and FanGraphs has him among its top 50 prospects overall.
Another South Carolina player who played well over the summer and is considered a likely draft pick is junior utility player Noah Campbell. For the second consecutive season, he excelled in the Cape Cod League, hitting. 324 with three home runs and 19 RBIs in 34 games, earning All-Star honors.
Campbell’s time with the Gamecocks, though, went poorly in 2019. He hit just .239 and struck out 47 times in 188 at-bats, walking just 18 times in 50 games.
Kingston’s plan to ensure Campbell doesn’t revert back to his collegiate struggles now that the summer is over encompasses a larger change he’s made in how the coaching staff is instructing USC’s hitters.
“We’re using wood bats an awful lot now in our batting practice sessions. That’s one thing. Another thing is we’re doing a lot more fundamental work in terms of just moving runners and bunts and hit-and-runs and hitting behind runners and using the opposite field, so we’re a little bit more old school in that approach, you know. Last year, we did some of that work, not as much as we’re doing this year,” Kingston said.
That shift is, in some ways, a major difference from Kingston’s first two years on the job, in which he significantly ramped up South Carolina’s use of cutting-edge technology and modern training techniques. But after watching players like Campbell struggle to produce power, he saw the benefit of trying something new — and it’s not as though he doesn’t see technical benefits to hitting with wood bats either.
“What we’ve seen so far is training with the wood has really helped the guys once they put the aluminum bat in their hands, because it’s the exact opposite,” Kingston said. “You hear a lot of times guys could hit in college with the aluminum, but they struggle to hit with the wood. If you can master the wood, then the aluminum bat becomes that much easier to have success with. The wood bat is weighted a little bit differently, it feels like a heavier piece, it makes you stronger, the sweet spot is smaller, so when you put the aluminum bat back in your hand, you now have a bigger sweet spot and more whip because of the weight distribution.”
So don’t expect Kingston to completely abandon his use of modern technology.
“I don’t think everything we did last year was wrong in terms of preparation. I think we just need to continue to learn how to marry the technology with the old-school fundamentals, and every year you learn and you evolve and grow,” Kingston said.
Jeff Heinrich, junior infielder — Shoulder, out for fall
Julian Bosnic, redshirt freshman outfielder/pitcher — Tommy John surgery, out for fall
Andrew Peters, junior pitcher — Tommy John surgery, out for fall
Thomas Farr, junior pitcher — Hand, out for fall
Wesley Sweatt, sophomore pitcher — Knee, out for fall
Brett Kerry, sophomore pitcher — Oblique, limited for fall
Hayden Lehman, junior pitcher — Tommy John surgery, out for 2020