COLUMBIA — Skylar Meade would eat his baseball cap if any of his pitchers couldn’t get outs by simply throwing strikes.
But they aren’t doing it enough, and over half of them are hurt. So as South Carolina staggers to the end of what will be the worst SEC season in its history, there isn’t much the Gamecocks' pitching coach can say other than it will get better.
“Last year we weren’t an elite strike-throwing team. We maximized what we could do,” Meade said. “Got to do it in the money times, the high-leverage spots, when big-time hitters are up. Can’t have the wild pitch/passed ball. Can’t have the random walk.”
It’s stunning that USC ranks 51st out of 299 teams in strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s also surprising to see a staff that walked Vanderbilt hitters 23 times last weekend, losing all three games, is 81st in walks per nine innings.
The bad has far outweighed the good. Meade doesn’t make excuses or duck the blame. He does list reasons and hope.
The Gamecocks (24-23 overall, 5-19 SEC) had 19 pitchers on the opening day roster, and three of them were already out for the season (with another, Josiah Sightler, listed as a pitcher but developing as an outfielder). Since then, five more have joined the disabled list, head coach Mark Kingston announcing this week that T.J. Shook and John Gilreath likely won’t pitch again this season and Friday night starter Carmen Mlodzinski, out since the first week of March with a broken foot, is leaning toward not returning as well.
Meade has 10 pitchers for the final eight games. One of those, Sawyer Bridges, has had to tweak his throwing style so much due to his own troublesome shoulder that it’s tough to call him healthy.
Five of the nine Meade can count on are freshmen. Another is junior Reid Morgan, a newcomer who became the team’s best starter.
That’s great news for next year, when Morgan could return and freshmen such as young fireballer Brett Kerry can anchor the bullpen. This year?
Emphasis on the last part of “growing pains.”
“Sometimes guys get thrust in a role that’s something maybe they aren’t A, ready for, or B, you know that it may be harder for them to have total success. But you also know it’s probably the best option for the team,” Meade said. “But you want guys to get off on the right foot in their careers, and now you’re toying with that. It’s a process for these guys.”
The injuries have been relentless, and they hit the most experienced arms. Mlodzinski was going to throw 90-100 innings, with Ridge Chapman pegged for 50 as an explosive relief option. Hayden Lehman’s curveball could have feasted on SEC batters.
They combined for less than 20 innings. So any plans for easing the freshmen in, having them average 30 innings among them so they could be ready for next year and the year after, were quickly scrapped.
“Lot of the young guys, especially as it’s gotten later in the season, have definitely come in some tight spots and probably some places you wouldn’t typically put a freshman in,” outfielder Andrew Eyster said. “They’ve shown a lot of maturity, a lot of toughness. They don’t let the big moment affect them.”
But the production has been iffy. On Friday night, the score was 8-8 in the sixth inning when the plate umpire took a foul ball to the throat and left the game. By the time a new umpire was in place, 15 minutes had passed.
USC freshman Dylan Harley lost his rhythm. He walked the first two batters and hit the third. Cole Ganopulos relieved, threw a wild pitch among what became a walk, gave up a double and walked another.
Gage Hinson went walk-single-single before third baseman Jacob Olson stabbed a nasty line drive. That was the inning’s first out.
It took 48 pitches to get it. The Gamecocks gave up nine runs in a half-inning that lasted nearly an hour.
“It’s not a video game where you can just go create a player. They work their tails off,” Meade said. “They’re hurting, but sometimes, guys, it isn’t in the cards.”
Meade doesn’t talk about the disappointing record or the dark cloud that seems to be hovering over his pitchers. It’s the situation and he has to make the best of it.
“There are certain things you see that give you this moment of future clarity,” he said. “Dylan Harley changed his breaking ball, got a handle on it and we brought him in to face (Missouri’s) Kameron Misner. He comes in there and just dices him up with that new breaking ball. Three swing-and-misses to a guy who’s going to be a first-round pick.
"You see a moment like that and think that’s going to be really, really good. They’ve all had those moments."
If they hadn’t had to strive for them so early in their careers, perhaps there would be more of those moments. All Meade and his pitchers can do is wait for the payoff.