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Թϱ baseball defies preseason expectations, struggles to find its rhythm early in 2024 season

<p>FILE - Senior left-handed pitcher Garrett Gainey celebrates after striking out a batter during South Carolina’s game against Clemson at Segra Park on March 2, 2024. Gainey recorded six strikeouts in the Gamecocks’ 5-4 loss to the Tigers.</p>
FILE - Senior left-handed pitcher Garrett Gainey celebrates after striking out a batter during Թϱ’s game against Clemson at Segra Park on March 2, 2024. Gainey recorded six strikeouts in the Gamecocks’ 5-4 loss to the Tigers.

As the Gamecocks near the end of March, the team's preseason expectations for its hitting and pitching have flipped.

Head coach Mark Kingston said during his preseason availability in January that he believed the team's strong suit heading into the 2024 campaign was its seasoned batting lineup.

The Gamecocks returned multiple starters from last season's offense, which hit 117 home runs overall. The starters include two Preseason All-Americans in sophomore outfielder Ethan Petry and junior catcher Cole Messina.

“I think our hitting is pretty well established,” Kingston said. “When you have two All-Americans returning, when you have a 19-home-run guy returning and you have a lot of other really good hitters back — they're a year stronger, a year better. I think it's pretty safe to say our offense is going to be really good.”

More questions surrounded the Gamecocks' pitching staff after it lost five pitchers to the 2023 MLB Draft.

Messina said he was optimistic that the pitching staff could contribute to the team's success this season despite the losses.

“I see a group of guys that work extremely hard every day who can really help us,” Messina said. “I think that a lot of people will be shocked come opening day, and I think they’re going to prove a lot of people wrong.”

Across Թϱ's first 23 games, though, the performances of both its batting lineup and pitching staff have differed from preseason expectations. The Gamecocks' offense has struggled to score runners, while its pitchers have served as the backbone of the team's early-season success.

So far, the team has struck out 221 times — the second-highest total in the SEC behind Missouri. Թϱ is also ranked 11th in the conference in hits with 211.

Several players have contributed to the Gamecocks' early offensive slump, including senior first baseman Gavin Casas, who has had trouble reaching base since announcing his return to the program last July. Casas has a .216 batting average and has only hit two home runs while striking out 12 times this season. 

Messina has encountered some early-season roadblocks, as well, earning just nine hits in 42 at-bats across his first 11 games. He also went hitless in the team’s first SEC series of the season against Ole Miss.

Թϱ's offensive struggles reached a tipping point following two consecutive losses to Clemson in early March. After the series, the team's hitters had a meeting with the coaching staff to get to the bottom of their inconsistency, Kingston said.

“It’s a work in progress for us. There’s no question about that. We’re not going to hide from it,” Kingston said. “We get on base a lot. Now we just need to make that next step and get over that hump of getting those guys in pretty consistently.”

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Թϱ's offense has recently shown some improvement, though, amassing 40 runs over its midweek contest against USC Upstate and weekend series against Vanderbilt.

Թϱ's pitching staff, however, started the season with an impressive string of performances. The Gamecocks allowed just five runs in its opening series against Miami-Ohio, striking out 27 batters throughout the three-game set. 

The pitching staff as a whole boasts a 2.96 ERA and has allowed only 83 runs — the third-fewest in the SEC. 

“I think our pitching staff is way better than everybody says it is,” Petry said. “They have made significant improvements since the fall, and it's showing how (pitching coach Matt Williams) is working with them.”

The Gamecocks' rotation is led by junior pitcher Eli Jones, who has emerged as the team's Friday starter. Jones earned a 2-0 record and 2.35 ERA through his six games started this season, tallying 23 strikeouts and allowing eight runs over 30.2 innings pitched.

Թϱ has also seen contributions from less experienced members of its pitching staff, such as freshman pitcher Eddie Copper. Copper, who has earned the midweek starter role since the start of the season, accumulated 21 strikeouts and a 2.70 ERA over 20 innings pitched.

Jones and Copper have headlined the Gamecocks' pitching prowess as members of the starting rotation, but the bullpen has also become a source of strength for the team.

Junior pitcher Chris Veach has been called out to help the team when runners are on base, becoming a reliable safeguard late in games. Across 16.1 innings of work, Veach has allowed just seven runs on 13 hits and has totaled 24 strikeouts.

Senior pitcher Garrett Gainey, who transferred from Liberty during the offseason, has also provided the Gamecocks with energy during his late-inning appearances. Gainey has struck out 23 batters throughout 14 innings pitched and has only given up one run and four hits all season, earning him a 0.64 ERA. 

Kingston said Williams, who was hired as the Gamecocks' pitching coach in June 2023, has played a pivotal role in helping the team's pitchers reach their true potential.

“We knew we had that talent. I think what Matt Williams has done a great job with — is just really helping these guys harness what they can do and attacking the strike zone,” Kingston said. “I'm just very pleased that what we thought we would be getting out of these guys, we are getting. And with a lot of them, we're getting even more."

Թϱ will get another opportunity to improve its all-around success on Tuesday when it faces Presbyterian at Founders Park. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network+ at 6:30 p.m. 


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