Heading into the 2023 campaign, head coach Mark Kingston anticipates this year’s group of pitchers to be a key to success for the team.
During an injury plagued 2022 season, no unit on the South Carolina baseball team saw its depth stretched thinner than the pitching staff, which had six players injured at one point in the year.
“After last year, you never take anything for granted, but how can you not be excited about the guys we’re going to have on that pitching staff,” Kingston said.
Kingston said South Carolina’s rotation depth is one of the most significant advantages the team has this season, and he listed six pitchers he considered to be starters as well as an additional three pitchers with collegiate experience at the position.
“Most people are trying to find a third starter for the weekend. We go six deep at least right now,” Kingston said. “We feel really good about that group, and again, the expectations are high, but I think most of them are warranted … and it’s up to us to make sure we figure out the right way to fit those pieces of the puzzle together.”
Headlining the pitching staff’s returnees is junior Will Sanders, who spent much of last season as the Gamecocks’ Friday night starter and delivered many great pitching performances. He finished 2022 with a 7-3 record and 3.43 ERA over 15 appearances, leading the team with 89.1 innings pitched and 91 strikeouts.
Sanders was named to the Preseason All-America second team by Perfect Game, Baseball America and D1Baseball.com ahead of the 2023 season. He said he aspires to improve on last year’s numbers, which served as a source of motivation for him during the offseason.
“Last year, I lost three games, and that’s kind of what pushes me … You got to come to work every single day with something to prove,” Sanders said. “Every day is an opportunity to prove who you are and what you want to be, and so my biggest thing for this spring is 12 wins, and that’s what I’ve worked for.”
Two pitchers selected in last year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft – redshirt junior James Hicks and senior Noah Hall – opted to return to Columbia rather than join the professional ranks. Hicks made two appearances for the Gamecocks last season before undergoing a season-ending Tommy John surgery, while Hall earned a 4.34 ERA and averaged more than one strikeout per inning (78 punchouts in 76.2 innings) over 15 total appearances, including 12 starts, in 2022.
After being selected in the 20th round by the Milwaukee Brewers, Hall said the community aspect of Gamecock baseball is what brought him back for another year.
“You’re not going to have that type of brotherhood and type of care in pro ball as you do in college, and I wanted to just have one more year, and I’m very grateful I did that,” Hall said. “This is probably one of the closest teams I’ve ever been a part of in my life."
2023 will see the return of junior Jack Mahoney, who was unable to pitch last season due to injury. While Mahoney saw some time as an infielder last year, he said he is eager to make his first appearance on the mound in nearly two years.
“I can’t lie to you, that’s all I think about,” Mahoney said. “The day I finally get to run out there … I’m for sure going to take a moment to look around and soak it in.”
This year’s rotation could also feature freshman Eli Jerzembeck, who Kingston describes as a “weapon” because of the variety of pitches he can throw at high speeds.
“It’s 96-97 (mile per hour fastballs). It’s three different off-speed pitches at any count. He’s not afraid to throw any pitch at any time. His dad’s a former Major League Baseball player, and so he’s got everything you’re looking for,” Kingston said. “He’s very confident, and he has a reason to be because his stuff is electric.”
These pitchers will be joined by the likes of sophomore Matthew Becker, a one-time SEC Co-Pitcher of the Week honoree, junior Ricky Williams, an incoming transfer from Clemson, senior Brett Thomas and sophomore Eli Jones.
After failing to reach three of the last five NCAA tournaments, Mahoney understands that every season brings high expectations and pressure, but he says the Gamecocks has enough quality and depth to reverse that trend this year.
“Obviously, it’s always in the back of your head, and especially a year like last year is so foreign to this program – that doesn’t happen, it’s not acceptable here. We know that, (and) the coaches know that,” Mahoney said. “This fall has been about getting back to who we are and playing Gamecock baseball the right way, and so, as long as we do that, we got the pieces, and we got the arms.”
Sanders said that he has more faith in this year’s team and pitching staff than he ever has in his baseball career.
“I’ve never been more confident to be a part of a team or a group of pitchers, and I think that (pitching coach Justin Parker)’s done a great job getting everybody ready,” Sanders said. “We’re excited to show it in the spring.”