Junior pitcher Jack Mahoney's return to the mound was 656 days in the making. Before his start in the third game of South Carolina's 2023 season against UMass Lowell on Feb. 19, Mahoney had not made an appearance on the mound since his May 5, 2021.
For Mahoney, one of the most difficult steps in his journey back was the decision to focus exclusively on pitching.
When Mahoney first arrived to Columbia as a freshman, he was a two-way player, which meant that he both hit and pitched. In 2021, he was used primarily as a bullpen option for head coach Mark Kingston, who later gave him the opportunity to start five games toward the end of the season. Over the course of his freshman campaign, Mahoney pitched to a 1.62 ERA and struck out 39 batters over 33.1 innings while going 0 for 4 with two runs scored in four at-bats.
Mahoney did not pitch during the 2022 season after suffering a right elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, but he did play 15 games in the field and start one game at second base.
Although Mahoney did not see the mound as a sophomore, he said the experience did have a silver lining — it allowed him to get his body and mind into better shape for pitching in the future.
“I think playing second base helped my mental (health) throwing the ball,” Mahoney said, “I was picking up the ball and throwing it and not even thinking about it. Sometimes I think you see guys hesitating when they first get back throwing.”
Despite showing some power in 16 at bats in 2022 — two of his three hits were home runs — Mahoney said he would stop playing in the field for the Gamecocks this season because he wanted to be able to focus on one aspect of the game.
“(The switch) really helped just because of time management,” Mahoney said, “It’s just been really nice to get my body where it needs to be now and just mature in that position.”
However, the switch was not entirely easy for Mahoney. He said it was “bittersweet” to put down the bat for good but meant more for his future in the sport.
“I was like, 'Well, what’s going to kind of give me a better chance of playing baseball as long as I can?'” Mahoney said. “I haven’t looked back since.”
Mahoney's return to the mound was set in stone when Kingston announced the rotation for South Carolina's season-opening series against UMass Lowell, which included Mahoney for the finale on Feb. 19.
Sophomore catcher Cole Messina described Mahoney's pregame warmup pitches for that game as “elite stuff.”
“I knew it was gonna be fun after the bullpen,” Messina said. “I was excited. I was shaking my head at my dad, I was so excited for him.”
That excitement quickly turned into tangible results for Mahoney, who struck out the first three batters he faced in the opening inning of the game. He went on to throw 5.2 innings, striking out nine batters and not giving up a run.
Kingston said that, though Mahoney was anxious to get out on the mound, his performance mirrored the potential he flashed in preseason scrimmages.
“He just wanted to go out there and show the world how much better he’s gotten,” Kingston said, “His last start in spring ball was really good, and then to see what he did, he translated that to today's game, nine strikeouts with no walks — that’s tremendous.”
While Mahoney began the season as the Sunday starter, Kingston has not ruled out the possibility for his assignment, or anyone else's, to shift as the season goes on.
“Everybody’s roles are their current roles, not necessarily their permanent ones, because you’ve got to earn it every day,” Kingston said.