COLUMBIA — Mark Kingston likes the numbers. As analytics have taken over Major League Baseball, they’ve seeped into the college game, and South Carolina’s second-year skipper heavily used them during his first season.
Handling his pitching staff this year will be more of the same. As the Gamecocks seek to identify their starting rotation, there will be a lot of trial-and-error. And a lot of MLB input.
“I think everybody would love to have three Cy Young Award winners on the weekend and have Mariano Rivera as your closer to just hand the ball to. Right now we have more of an unproven staff,” Kingston said.
“Until we know for sure that we have three workhorses on the weekend to just hand the ball off to and say, ‘We’ll see you in the seventh inning’ … We don’t have that yet. Doesn’t mean we won’t.”
USC knew it was going to be facing quite the chore at the game’s most important spot this year when top arms Adam Hill and Cody Morris were drafted. That removed 32 of 63 starts, and 14 more were lost when Logan Chapman underwent Tommy John surgery, which nixed his 2019 season.
Sophomore Carmen Mlodzinski started seven games last year and will get the ball Friday when the Gamecocks host Liberty in their season-opener. After that, it’s unknown.
USC has pitchers but not many have thrown on this level. There’s only so much to be learned from scrimmages. Kingston and pitching coach Skylar Meade contacted several MLB clubs for advice and all reiterated it’s not as simple as righty-lefty matchups anymore.
“It’s number of pitches, it’s number of times through the order,” Kingston said. “We just want to make sure we are up to speed with every possible way to give ourselves a little bit better chance to win.”
Fridays seem simple. Mlodzinski starts, gives USC seven innings, and then it's time to turn to closer Sawyer Bridges, who Kingston says he’d trust with the final outs six days a week and twice on Sunday.
The other times when the Gamecocks have a whole lot of innings to fill before Bridges?
If Bridges is the closer, USC may dabble in throwing an opener.
The Tampa Bay Rays used the strategy last season. Sergio Romo started for the first time in his 11-year career against the Angels and struck out the top third of their order. He started again the next day, recorded the first four outs and handed off again.
The Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers were two of the teams that were gracious with their time when the Gamecocks came calling. If USC has to put a middle reliever out there for a handful of outs, either to gain an advantage when the other team fills its lineup card or because there simply isn’t a seven-inning starter to count on, that’s what it will do.
“I think the challenge, in my mind, is really simple. Are all your guys going to have their best bullets?” Meade said. “If we decide we’re throwing six guys in the course of a game, you are kind of counting cards a little bit.”
Gifted freshman fireballer Dylan Harley seems to be the likely Saturday starter but Kingston said Sunday could be Reid Morgan, T.J. Shook or John Gilreath. Ridge Chapman, who started six games last year, could be in line for a midweek starting or middle relief role.
USC has a lot of options, a lot of spaces to fill. It could be a game-to-game process.
But the opener could be a strategy the Gamecocks not only use, but enjoy.
“It’s a way to have a back-of-the-bullpen, power-type arm get through the first one or two innings, then hand it off to a starter. Then the starter starts his outing at the bottom of the order, then it rolls over, and he gets to face the bottom of the order twice before he has to face the top of the order (twice),” Kingston said. “You want your best guys pitching against the best hitters as often as possible.”