Schmidt embraces new role as USC’s No. 1 starter

Sophomore right-hander Ckarke Schmidt starts the season as the No. 1 pitcher in South Carolina's rotation. (USC Athletics)

COLUMBIA — With one pitcher headed for the professional ranks and another likely to miss the season with an injury, the opportunity was there for Clark Schmidt. And he hurled himself into it, just like one of his 93 mph fastballs over the plate.

The sophomore right-hander has emerged as the No. 1 pitcher in South Carolina’s rotation, a position burnished in his three-hit performance in the Gamecocks’ season opener against Albany. USC swept the three-game series by a combined score of 24-4, and next hosts Appalachian State at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Newcomers played a significant role in the sweep. Junior college transfer John Jones, who played catcher and designated hitter, hit .600 with a double, a homer, and nine RBI, the highest three-game total by a USC player in three seasons. Another junior college transfer, outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams, hit .400 with a homer, four RBI, and four runs scored.

But starting it all off was Schmidt, stepping into the role of No. 1 starter vacated by Jack Wynkoop’s departure for the minor leagues and Wil Crowe’s continuing rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery. After a freshman campaign that included a 4.81 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched, he was ready to take the step up to staff ace.

“I totally wanted it,” Schmidt said. “Ever since I left the campus last year, going into the offseason, my No. 1 goal was to come out here and be the No. 1 pitcher, and to take that rein and be the leader on this team. I think all the hard work and everything I’ve put in up to this point, it’s showed.”

While Schmidt finished last season with just a 2-2 record, the Gamecocks were 7-3 in his 10 starts. Head coach Chad Holbrook said Schmidt put on weight over the offseason, and refined a pitch selection that includes a fastball in the low 90s with a good sinker.

“He’s much more confident,” Holbrook said. “He’s just got a demeanor about him: ‘I went through it last year, and I didn’t know what to expect, but I know what to expect now, and I can handle it.’ I think that’s his attitude and mentality. He’s a lot more confident than last year. He believes in himself. His stuff’s better, too.”

And yet, Holbrook knows Schmidt can be better than he was against Albany, where he walked four batters — higher than in all but one of his starts last season. In fall and spring scrimmages, “he dominated our guys much worse than he dominated Albany,” Holbrook said. “That’s how high I think the ceiling is.”

Blame it on the emotions of starting on opening day. “I wouldn’t say I was nervous,” Schmidt said. “But I was definitely amped up.”