The South Carolina Gamecock baseball team closed an outstanding year in disappointing fashion Sunday afternoon, falling to the Cowboys of Oklahoma State by a 3-1 score. However, despite not getting the storybook ending that every fanbase dreams of, the team has a lot to be proud of. The 2016 Gamecock baseball team discovered a revitalized pitching staff, several stars emerged out of nowhere, the newly christened Founder’s Park roared back to life, and the team, as a whole, grossly overachieved.
Starting Pitching - Going into the 2016 season the Gamecock pitching staff was full of question marks. Other than Clarke Schmidt, our weekend rotation was filled by guys who had either never pitched at a Division 1 level, or had seemingly regressed since their freshman year (more on Widener later). Even Schmidt didn’t have an outstanding freshman year, finishing 2-2 with a 4.81 ERA. So it is safe to say that, coming into this season, people assumed starting pitching would be a huge question mark. If not a liability. However, the weekend rotation turned into one of the stronger staffs in the SEC. With Clarke Schmidt, especially in the first half of the year, looking the part as a Friday night ace, it allowed Braden Webb to develop. Adam Hill eventually came on to replace Taylor Widener as the Sunday starter and showed flashes of greatness as a mere true freshman.
Bullpen Development - If there was a bigger question mark on the team than the starting rotation coming into the year, it was the bullpen. The lone returning “stalwarts” out of the bullpen was Josh Reagan and Reed Scott. While both were reliable last season, neither are the hard-throwing guys you need at the end of the game. Well, Reagan upped his fastball from about 84-85 MPH to the low 90s. This made his changeup, as a lefty, one of the more lethal pitches in the country. However, the biggest key to this bullpen becoming elite is clearly the emergence of Tyler Johnson. The hard throwing righty come on to save 9 games and strikeout 59 batters in only 52 innings of work. Oh, and he threw a clutch complete game in a must win regional game against UNCW. With Scott, Reagan and Johnson returning the bullpen looks to be even better next year.
Rising Stars - With several departures from last year’s squad, newcomers needed to contribute immediately and returnees needed to improve in a big way. Several players did just that. John Jones, despite struggling later in the year, was instrumental in the Gamecocks’ fast start. Dom Thompson-Williams, Gene Cone and TJ Hopkins solidified the outfield defensively and wreaked havoc on offense by hitting for a combined slash line of .335/.427/.473 (Batting Average/On-Base %/Slugging %). The Gamecocks also had several All-SEC Freshmen Selections with LT Tolbert, Chris Cullen, Adam Hill and Braden Webb all making the cut. Unfortunately, with Webb and DTW getting selected in the 3rd and 5th rounds, respectively, we probably will not get them back for next year. Yet with Tolbert, Cullen, Hill and others returning there is reason to be optimistic for next year.
Home Field Advantage - The latter part of 2015 and the early part of the 2016 seasons Founder’s Park was not living up to its past as a raucous homefield advantage. However, as the Gamecocks inched closer toward a regional host bid and the SEC East title, the fans started to become more and more invested in this team. And then, with a win over the #1 Florida Gators in dramatic fashion, the homecrowd truly began to rally behind this team. The crowd made it a living hell for UNCW in the last two games of the regional round and, despite two losses, Coach Holbrook said the crowd did their part in the Super Regional against Oklahoma State.
Overachievers - I am not going to tell you that, based on the year we had, I’m not disappointed that we are not going to Omaha. However, looking back, I don’t know if we could have asked much more from this team. Most pundits had us projected as a 2 or 3 seed in a regional and finishing a solid 3rd place in the SEC East, well behind the Florida Gators and Vanderbilt Commodores. This team proceeded to win 46 games, 20 of them in the SEC, and win the SEC East crown. After their usual poor showing in Hoover, they won the Columbia regional and then hosted a Super Regional for the first time since 2012. Coach Holbrook, after missing the postseason entirely in 2015, promised to fix the program. He not only fixed it, but returned us to national prominence for the 2016 season. We will find out over the next two weeks or so who is leaving for professional baseball. But, no matter who returns or who doesn’t, Gamecock baseball fans have something to be excited about again. The future, with another highly regarded recruiting class coming in, looks very, very bright.