COLUMBIA — It’s hard to take him seriously with the aw-shucks grin and the hat rammed over a mop of dark curls and his Adam’s apple resembling a golf ball impaled by a weathervane. And that’s before he says, with a poker face worthy of Vegas, that listening to Miley Cyrus helps with the translucency of the baseball.
Then he starts pitching, flinging horsehide from a 6-6 frame with pipe cleaner arms, and the switch flips.
“Hey,” the thought balloon reads, “this kid can deal.”
That’s the thinking when it comes to South Carolina freshman right-hander Will Sanders. His was the standard upbringing for a Gamecock baseball recruit: best player on his high-school team, elevated recruiting rankings due to performance at Atlanta’s Woodward Academy and his travel-ball squad. Got him into school with some help from the MLB Draft, which when shortened to five rounds last year due to COVID-19, ensured Sanders would enroll..
“Some guys get hyped up and they live up to it, some guys get hyped up and they don’t live up to it. So far, he’s a guy that has lived up to the hype,” coach Mark Kingston said. “We hoped he could be this good. Whether we thought he’d be this good this fast, that would have been maybe a little optimistic.”
In a crowded dugout due to players returning that normally would have left, the chance for Sanders to be a weapon anytime this year was slim. For him to become crucial to the Gamecocks’ chances to win within the first six games bordered on remote.
But there he was, starting USC’s first midweek game of the year. Then he was asked to enter against Clemson in the 11th inning of a tie game, two Tigers on base and nobody out. Then he had to repeat it the next day against Clemson in a tie game in the ninth, two Tigers on base and one out.
Sanders earned the win in each after allowing zero runs and watching Andrew Eyster sink Clemson with walk-off hits. As an encore, when Kingston decided to shake up the weekend rotation by determining the Sunday starter only after he saw who he needed on Friday and Saturday, Sanders got the call there.
Sanders struck out six in four innings in a win over Florida two weeks ago. Then at Georgia, he scattered eight hits over eight innings to earn SEC co-freshman of the week honors.
“I like to have fun a lot, especially during the games,” Sanders said. “But competitive when it needs to be, of course. Off the field, it’s kinda ... fun.”
It’s impossible to miss the mischievous twinkle in his eye. But he doesn't allow fun to affect performance. Sanders has always known where the line is.
“I told him at the start of his junior year, ‘Will, you have the tools and the ability and you’re better than anybody out here,’” said John Hurston, Sanders’ coach at Woodward. “I told him that because he still had to work. And guess what, as some kids do, he rose to the occasion.”
Hurston captured Sanders in three words. “Laid back grinder.”
Contradiction in terms? No. Just Will Sanders.
Already over 6 feet as a high school freshman, Sanders resembled a baby giraffe as he tried to get coordinated on the mound. There was one time he got his spikes caught in the shoelace of his other shoe. Down he went, all arms and legs and hair.
“He couldn’t find a cap to stay on his head. He had long hair and every time he threw a fastball, he’d lose his cap,” Hurston said. “He picked up his hat 75 times a game. I told him I was going to get a bobby pin.”
Then Woodward turned to him in the playoffs to protect a two-run lead and his first warmup pitch nearly punched a hole in the backstop.
“If there hadn’t been a net behind the plate, it would have killed somebody,” Hurston said.
But as Sanders continued to sprout into his body, he learned to control it. An early travel-ball showcase had Gamecock assistant Trip Couch in the audience, and he invited Sanders to a USC camp.
“I came and topped 87. I had a steak dinner the night before,” Sanders said. “The waitress said, ‘You better eat all that steak,’ and I’d never hit 87 before that day, and it felt pretty cool.”
A scholarship offer soon followed and Sanders accepted, blossoming into a top prospect.
“He has worked really hard on his craft,” said his father, Rich Sanders. “He didn’t get a pitching coach, really, until late, with (USC pitching coach Skylar Meade). He’s worked on it on his own, self-studying.”
Rich saw it early in his son, how he was good at every sport, but baseball had a hold on him. There was never a reluctance to quit hanging out with his friends because he had to practice or play, it was always done with no feeling of sacrifice.
With Rich standing 6-4 and wife Rebekah 5-10, he figured Will would keep swimming in the gene pool. It was realized when people at the Christmas party kept asking Rich and Will to stand back-to-back.
“I kept saying, ‘It’s an optical illusion! I’m just wider and that makes him look taller!,’” Rich said. “I felt like the guys on TV in ‘Fletch,’ saying, ‘He’s listed at 6-6, 6-9 with the hairdo.’”
He also saw the work. The relentless charting of major league pitchers. The recall of every pitch he threw after a game. The goofball tendency between starts to the calm, unflappable demeanor during them.
Will celebrated his 19th birthday five days before he was asked to clinch the Georgia series. He had a presence that day.
“I had to learn to pitch first, because velocity came this spring,” Will said. “I had to find ways to beat the batter.”
Kingston is keeping his same pitching rotation for this weekend (Thomas Farr, Brannon Jordan and TBA) but if all works out like it has been, expect to see Sanders face Missouri on April 11. He’s ready for it.
He and fellow freshman Jack Mahoney tab their bullpen session each week as “LFG Day,” standing for, ahem, “Let’s Go,” and then peruse the dictionary for more five-dollar words to use in the post-game press conference.
“That was a little bit of my personality. Me and my sister would always watch ‘Hannah Montana,’” Sanders said. “Freshman year, first couple of outings, I wanted to get that home feeling back, tell them who I was, really. Making the speakers play ‘Hoedown Throwdown,’ it was great, and it really wasn’t nervous. And that’s how I think I started to become a little more successful, because it’s not just going out here to play for big SEC program South Carolina, it’s really doing what I can do and showing what I can do with my work.”