COLUMBIA — T.J. Hopkins wanted surgery. At least then, he’d know a target date when he could be back out there doing what he was put on the planet to do.
They couldn’t give it to him. They handed him the worst sentence a ballplayer can ever receive.
“You have to wait. It will heal on its own.”
“If he wanted me to play, I’d play,” Hopkins said, referring to coach Mark Kingston but he might as well have been talking about God. “I know it’s for the better, to be healthy all year, so I really didn’t disagree.”
The L3 vertebrae (lower back, nearly the tailbone) was fractured. Hopkins has no idea how or when he did it. Hard to swing a bat effectively and cover the vast Founders Park outfield with a balky back, and as much as Hopkins yearned to play, and South Carolina needed him to play, he couldn’t play.
He sat, again, after a sophomore year fighting a bum leg and busting his hand along with the back as a junior. Tom Petty sang about the waiting being the hardest part and Hopkins was living it, especially as the Gamecocks suffered without him.
It’s difficult and often ridiculous to say that one man outside the pitcher influences a baseball game, but the numbers don’t lie. USC was 21-9 last year when Hopkins started.
The Gamecocks were 16-17 when he didn’t.
“Now we just need fate to smile on us and allow him to stay healthy,” Kingston wistfully said. “But if he does, he’s one of the premier players in the country.”
Hopkins was finally cleared to play and re-adjusted his routines. A resident of the cage, Hopkins limited his swings and increased his stretching and muscle-strengthening exercises. He’s taking no chances of a violent hack putting him back on the pine.
“During BP, I’ll only take one swing, two swings a round. If my swing feels good, I never hit off the machine,” he said. “Only curveballs and fastballs in the cage, but that’s it. I just hit off live arms. The less swings, the better.”
Hopkins still played enough last year to log a .345 average with two homers and 24 RBIs, part of 59 total bases. He swiped 14 bases in 16 attempts, showing off every one of the tools that made him a definite first or second-round projection in his draft season.
That season ended with him hurt again, but another chance to prove himself this year.
“When I was little, (USC baseball) was the top notch. I just figured, ‘Why not play a full year healthy and reach everything I know I can, and what everybody else thinks I can do?,’” Hopkins said. “I just want to go out with a good top on my career.”
Kingston has lauded Hopkins’ dedication to preventative tactics and is hoping for the same thing as his top outfielder who will hit in the top third of the lineup. He needs a break, and not in any more small but important bones.
“You just got to control what you can control,” Hopkins said. “I’m confident I’m going to play 60-plus games this year.”