COLUMBIA — They didn’t give up. They kept competing even though they’ve known for the last two months that the postseason was barely a hope instead of the certainty this program has developed.
Yet even when an expectedly down season ended with another loss Tuesday, South Carolina’s baseball team couldn’t be too pleased with the notables. The Gamecocks did avoid the program’s first losing season since 1996 (they finished 28-28), they did avoid breaking the SEC’s longest streak of making the SEC tournament (23 years), they aren’t the first conference team to lose all 10 of their SEC series since the league went to a 30-game schedule in 1996.
Gamecock baseball should never be in a position to have to celebrate those kinds of “accomplishments.” The season was projected to be a struggle, and it was as 10 of 19 pitchers were lost with some malady or another.
But USC is expected to play in an NCAA Regional every season. After establishing itself as one of the best baseball programs in the country, if not the best, USC has missed three of five NCAA tournaments.
All of them aren’t his fault, but it points a white-hot laser at coach Mark Kingston as he prepares for his third year. A man who says he welcomes the pressure of living up to the program’s glorious past is going to feel it next season.
“It shows you have to be good in every area to be good in this league,” Kingston said after Tuesday’s 8-6 tournament loss to LSU that was a microcosm of how USC lost 27 other games this season. “There are really good teams that finish 10th and 11th in this league. When you survive this league, you have a chance to go to Omaha, bottom line. We survived it last year, and we had a chance to go to Omaha.”
This is the quandary. Looking at Kingston’s first two years, he was one win from the College World Series in the first and needed a telescope to see a regional berth in his second. He’s lost more games per season (26 and 28) than Ray Tanner or Chad Holbrook ever did in a combined 21 years.
Nobody cared about the number of losses last season when on the morning of June 11, USC was one of 12 teams out of 297 that still had a game to play.
Now, though …
This year, it was going to be tough to make the postseason before the injuries. Then losing so much pitching depth forced the Gamecocks to depend on freshmen to throw much more than the coaches would have liked, and the results were predictable.
All of that can be understood.
What can't is how stunningly bad USC was at playing crisp, fundamental baseball — be it in keeping pitches out of the dirt, making routine plays in the field or just hitting the ball. Kingston’s analytics-heavy approach of emphasizing launch angles and exit velocity (which worked last year) produced a lot of home runs but nobody who could move the runner over, drive him in or slash a base hit with any consistency.
A 14-3 start and a rivalry series win over Clemson was less and less impressive as the Gamecocks entered SEC play. They simply looked like they didn’t belong.
It’s hard to keep swallowing the injury reason when the Gamecocks let the same problems last throughout the season.
“We know what our weaknesses are and we know it’s going to be hard in some games,” Kingston said. “Six runs in the SEC is enough to win games if you’re pitching. We gave up eight (against LSU). If your offense gives you six, the pitching needs to be at the point where it can win that game.”
There were some bright spots. Pitcher Brett Kerry became a star as a freshman and will be relied on to anchor the bullpen next year (although his start at Mississippi State to get USC to the SEC tournament can’t be discounted, making it possible he could be in the rotation). Sluggers Andrew Eyster and Luke Berryhill combined for 22 homers and if they return, could be a solid presence in the middle of the order.
But USC will lose a lot with graduation, the draft and the coaches telling many of the supposed returnees that it’s not working out. A junior-college heavy class is on the way — good on paper to fix the pitching, bad because it represents a tremendous overhaul of the roster, which is always a 50-50 proposition.
Kingston’s first season quieted a lot of the doubters. This one, even with low expectations, gave them louder voices. His six-year contract ($600,000 annually) hasn’t been touched since it was signed, but another bad season and USC will at least have to look at the buyout. It drops to $2.2 million on July 1.
His players love him. There was no hint of dissent or bitterness inside the team this year.
“They played hard, we just didn’t play well enough often enough,” he said. “They could have mailed it in, they could have stopped playing hard. You can say whatever you want, but that team played hard. And that’s a hard thing to do when you go through the struggles that we’ve gone through.”
That’s not good enough at USC. Only the postseason, a yearly goal that’s really a demand considering the championship banners Kingston stares at every day from his office window, is.
Year 3 is on deck. It needs to be a hit.