The Daily Gamecock

Preview: South Carolina baseball enters 2024 season with elite returning hitters, uncertainty on defense

<p>FILE — South Carolina baseball players offer a toast during the playing of their alma mater after the team beat Clemson 7-1 on March 5, 2023, last season. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers 2-1 in the series, making it 12-1 at that point in the season.</p>
FILE — South Carolina baseball players offer a toast during the playing of their alma mater after the team beat Clemson 7-1 on March 5, 2023, last season. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers 2-1 in the series, making it 12-1 at that point in the season.

The South Carolina baseball team is looking to piece together a returning "Omaha-caliber" offense and unproven pitching staff during the 2024 season. 

Head coach Mark Kingston and the rest of the team give credit to their elite hitters for a D1 Baseball ranking as the No. 25 team in the nation. The Gamecocks hope that key newcomers along with its hitters will help compile a complete season. 

“This is a program built on blue-collar work ethic, always has been, always will be,” Kingston said. “I think our guys know that we have some pretty good momentum right now.” 

South Carolina's pitching staff will look a lot different this year after all three of its top-weekend starting pitchers were selected in the 2023 MLB Draft. Kingston looks to fresh talent and improved veteran leadership to lead the defensive campaign. 

Junior pitchers Matthew Becker and Eli Jones enter the season with the most starts as Gamecocks. Becker and Jones found themselves in weekend rotations last season after the bullpen sustained injuries. 

But this season, more arms are competing for spots on the rotation. 

“We have returning players who have enjoyed success, but it’s just a matter of figuring out how we put the pieces of the puzzle together,” Kingston said to Gamecocks Online. “The early part of this spring will be important to determine what roles they will play.” 

Headlining the bullpen is redshirt sophomore pitcher Roman Kimball, who will get his first chance to start on the mound after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. Kimball joined the Gamecocks in 2023 after his freshman year at Notre Dame, where he led his team to a College World Series appearance. In one season, he was a perfect 4-0 with 32 strikeouts in 25 innings pitched. 

Kingston said the freshman pair of Jevarra Martin and Tyler Pitzer, along with junior Dylan Eskew, are players that could also contribute significantly to the Gamecocks' efforts on the mound. 

“We know what we have internally, we all know that we have a really good pitching staff,” Kimball said. “I feel like our pitching is really good, and a lot of people are sleeping on it. And we're just going in with the same mindset as last year, we're ready to prove people wrong, we don’t care what the rankings say.” 

The bullpen is not the only uncertainly on the defensive side of the ball for South Carolina. 

Sophomore Will Tippett and freshman Lee Ellis are competing for the starting spot at shortstop while Parker Noland, a fifth-year transfer from Vanderbilt, was just named the Gamecocks' starting second baseman. 

Junior transfers Blake Jackson and Kennedy Jones will compete with returners, such as junior Evan Stone and fifth-year Dylan Brewer, for their chance in the outfield. 

“There are so many guys that can fill in these spots in the infield that are elite, elite defenders,” sophomore outfielder Ethan Petry said. “You know the depth in our outfield, we got like nine outfielders and they all can catch fly balls and they all can — they have great arms. And it's just, the range on our outfielders this year is elite.”  

With so much uncertainty and competition at other positions, South Carolina has a solid foundation on offense, most notably with its pair of Preseason All-SEC First Team returners, Petry and junior catcher Cole Messina. 

Petry had a .376 batting average with 10 doubles, 23 home runs and 75 RBIs during his freshman campaign. Petry will return as a key part of the lineup for the Gamecocks as he continues to build off an unprecedented rookie season. 

"I think he is better (than he was last season)," Kingston said. "He is a better player. He's a more mature hitter. He is going to have more discipline, and my goal for him is that he continues to evolve as a very feared hitter that if they're gonna not pitch to you and give you a walk, take it, don't get yourself out."

Messina will return to the behind the plate position as one of the nation’s best catchers. Last season, he hit .307 with 18 doubles, 17 home runs and 65 RBIs. 

BB v Clemson_Xavier Martin_230305_1560.JPG

FILE — Head coach Mark Kingston debriefs the team after its win against Clemson at Founders Park on March 5, 2023. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers 7-1.

“You're getting a guy that brings it all to the table, offense, defense, leadership,” Kingston said. “He bleeds garnet and black, and (is) everything you ever could hope for in a catcher.” 

Messina is expected to hit behind Petry in the lineup this year, but they will be accompanied by other elite hitters. 

Senior first baseman Gavin Casas will return for South Carolina after he withdrew his name from the 2023 MLB Draft to play another season with the Gamecocks. Casas proved to be a strong hitter last year, blasting 19 home runs and earning 56 RBIs

At the designated hitter position, junior infielder Carson Hornung, senior transfer infielder Tyler Causey and freshman catcher Ryan Bakes all remain in the conversation for the spot. 

The Gamecocks are looking to bring all these pieces together to push the team through one of the toughest conference schedules in the league. 

“In this league, you just, you try to hold your head above water through the 30-game grind so that you can then get to the postseason, hopefully host, and then from there we're all fighting to get to Omaha,” Kingston said. 

The Gamecocks will begin its campaign on Feb. 16 for a three-game home opener at Founders Park against Miami (Ohio). The first pitch is set for 4 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on SEC Network +.


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