Like the bloom of forsythia, South Carolina baseball is one of the few dependable harbingers of spring in Columbia. The Gamecocks traditionally begin their slate of spring scrimmages at the end of January, well before Punxsutawney Phil can even attempt to get his act together.
This is not the year to let the season sneak up on you.
Largely based on their abundance of talent and depth on the mound, the Gamecocks are poised to enter the season as a darling of the preseason polls. They were already ranked No. 4 by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Expectations have probably never been higher during the Chad Holbrook era.
Three South Carolina pitchers were ranked by Baseball America in the top 100 college draft prospects for 2017 — technically four if you count junior outfielder Alex Destino, a slugger who has seen a handful of low-leverage innings on the mound during his collegiate career, but you probably shouldn't.
Junior right-handers Wil Crowe, Clarke Schmidt and Tyler Johnson rank No. 11, No. 17 and No. 35 on that list, respectively.
As a freshman in 2014, Crowe emerged as one of the top young starters in the country, but he underwent Tommy John in 2015 and redshirted last season to recover from his elbow injury.
Schmidt more than adequately filled the role of Friday night starter in light of Crowe's absence, striking out 129 batters on the season, good for No. 6 in the country and second behind Florida's Alex Faedo in the SEC.
"Obviously with the experience of Wil and Clarke ... one of those two will probably throw Friday of opening day this year," said head coach Chad Holbrook after the conclusion of his team's fall scrimmages.
"It's going to be a tough call on my part — I wish I could throw them both," Holbrook said. "It's a nice problem to have though, I'm not going to lose much sleep over that decision."
The third member of the projected weekend rotation, sophomore right-hander Adam Hill, would also push for Friday night honors on just about any other pitching staff. Hill held opposing hitters to a .208 batting average in 14 starts and was granted freshman All-SEC honors.
"Adam Hill wants to be in that conversation too," Holbrook said. "Outside of one inning all fall he might have had the cleanest 12 or 13 innings of any of our pitchers."
The Gamecocks will have the luxury of leaving Johnson at the back end of their bullpen, even though it was their closer who gave them their biggest start of the season last year. The right-hander tossed a complete-game victory over UNC Wilmington as the Gamecocks faced elimination in the regionals last season. He pitched for the Collegiate National Team this past summer.
"The model that all of our young pitchers should watch is Tyler Johnson," Holbrook said.
Veteran relievers Reed Scott and Josh Reagan will pave the way to Johnson at the end of games, both coming off a season where they posted a sub-3.00 ERA.
The potential MLB draft status of the Gamecocks' top arms, particularly Crowe, Schmidt and Johnson, will be another narrative to follow this spring. Some of the Gamecocks' premier pitchers in recent Gamecock history like Michael Roth and Jack Wynkoop were regarded as star college pitchers but not necessarily viewed as having the tools to be elite pro prospects. This season the Gamecocks have at least three pitchers who could factor as first or second round prospects, and maybe another in Hill the following season. Scouts will be looking to book hotels for the whole weekend when they flock to Columbia this spring.
Regardless of who Holbrook gives the ball to on Feb. 17 when the Gamecocks host UNC Greensboro, the Gamecocks are going to have opening day quality pitching in the majority of their starts. In the meantime, don't blink — the baseball season might sneak up on you.