Coming off of its first losing season since 1996, the South Carolina baseball team is looking to erase memories of the past as it begins the 2023 campaign.
In 2022, the Gamecocks went 27-28 overall and 13-17 in the SEC and struggled on the mound to a 5.41 earned run average. Though they fared better on the offensive side of the ball, South Carolina's batters hit .263 with 58 home runs and 287 RBI, all worst in the SEC .
But expectations for the team in 2023 are high, as the Gamecocks sit at No. 23 in the preseason ranks, according to D1Baseball.
“It’s hard to get a glimpse of what we really were last year,” head coach Mark Kingston said. “I just think we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder to show what we’re all about.”
South Carolina returns a number of clubhouse leaders from last year's team, including senior infielder Braylen Wimmer, senior pitcher Noah Hall and redshirt junior pitcher James Hicks. All three were selected in the 2022 MLB Draft and were eligible to return to South Carolina after not signing professional contracts.
“I was thinking about it, and I just felt like I had another year. (God) wanted me to be here another year,” Hall said.
The Gamecocks also added key new players via the transfer portal, including junior outfielder Caleb Denny, who had a .331 batting average and hit 11 home runs for Oral Roberts during the 2022 season, and junior first baseman Gavin Casas, who hit for a .294 batting average and 14 RBIs in just 22 games for Vanderbilt last year.
In addition to its 5.41 ERA, South Carolina's pitching allowed their opponents to hit a .263 batting average against them, a number identical to what South Carolina hit, and slug 72 home runs.
However, the team will look to bounce back this year with junior pitcher Jack Mahoney, who did not pitch last season due to an injury sustained in 2021. When he was last on the mound as a freshman, Mahoney made 14 appearances, including five starts, and pitched to a 1.62 ERA in 33.1 innings.
“I think all that time off especially got me in the weight room with (Director of Sports Performance) Billy Anderson,” Mahoney said, “It got me a lot more mature-looking, more like an SEC baseball player.”
The Gamecocks will also look to junior pitcher Will Sanders. Sanders was heavily relied on in 2022, throwing 89.1 innings with a 3.43 ERA. Sanders said he was limited in workouts during the fall due to his inning count but has been able to find ways to improve despite the limitations.
"The biggest thing that I was able to do was gain weight that I needed," Sanders said. "That has put me in a good position because now the ball is coming out way easier. It feels easier, and I'm just pitching better."
On the offensive side of the ball, the Gamecocks are looking to build around Wimmer, who returned to the Gamecocks after being an 18th round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies last year. Wimmer started every game during the 2022 season and finished among the team leaders in batting average at .312 with 13 stolen bases.
“I’m a good athlete, so I wanted to come back,” Wimmer said. “Last year was my draft year and that was all I was worried about, so I wanted to come back and just enjoy it, embrace these memories in addition to the memories that are going to last a lifetime.”
Kingston said that this year's lineup will be “tough to pitch to,” featuring a balance between right-handed and left-handed hitters, as well as power hitters and fast base runners.
With many returning players and new additions to the squad, the Gamecocks emphasized fostering a welcoming environment and building chemistry in the offseason. Kingston said that Wimmer, Hall, Mahoney and Sanders have evolved as team leaders through that process.
“They’re great players, but they also have really been invested in this team so far,” Kingston said. “They’ve done a really nice job of welcoming new players, young and old.”
South Carolina will open its season against UMass Lowell on Feb. 17 at 4 p.m.