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South Carolina Fall Ball Report

By AJ Sessions and Sinderella

With football season not exactly living up to expectations, many across Gamecock Country are now looking ahead to spring with hope and anticipation.

Coming off a Super Regional series loss against the eventual National Runner-Up Florida Gators, South Carolina is poised to make it back to Omaha for the first time since 2012. With the exodus of key arms throughout the entire pitching staff, the Gamecocks have some holes to fill on the mound. But, offensively, this team has a lot more depth than in previous years. As always, health is going to play a major factor, but we will do our best to provide a breakdown of players to keep an eye on, the potential starting 9, and likely pitching roles. Without further ado, let's go.

On the offensive side of the ball, the two cornerstones are, without a doubt, Ethan Petry and Cole Messina. Two All-American caliber players making up your 3-4 spots in the lineup is never a bad starting point for an offense, but the leadership qualities of both players are immensely valuable as well.

Petry (376, 23 HR, 75 RBI in 2023), likely starting in right field, has continued mashing this fall, tallying four home runs already. Messina (.307, 17 HR, 65 RBI), a lock to be the Opening Day catcher, has the highest recorded exit velocity in the scrimmages so far, at just over 114 mph. Both dudes will build upon their seasons last year to be among the best players across the entire SEC.

The right side of the infield will have a Vandy flair, with Gavin Casas and Parker Noland as the favorites to win starting roles at first and second base, respectively. Casas hit 19 tanks for the Gamecocks last year after transferring from Vandy, and Noland arrives this season after 9 homers and a .277 average while providing great defense at 1b. Noland has real pop, as his two-grand-slam game last year would indicate. Noland's experience should allow him to step in right away and contribute at a very high level.

On the other side of the infield, the Gamecocks return starting third baseman Talmadge LeCroy. LeCroy transitioned from catcher to third during the off-season last year and had some growing pains defensively throughout the year. But, he evolved into a very reliable defender at the hot corner by the end of the season. He also provided very professional at-bats all season to the tune of a .289 batting average and a .430 OBP. If he can take a step forward defensively, Coach Mark Kingston will have found his everyday third baseman.

Shortstop is perhaps the most interesting position to evaluate this fall for South Carolina. In past seasons, the Gamecocks have elected for sure-handedness over offensive capabilities (does the name George Callil ring any bells?), but sophomore Will Tippett will do his best to provide both. Tippett was thrust into a starting role due to injury in the middle of last season and frankly was overmatched for the first month or so of at-bats. However, as the season progressed, it became clear he was catching up. Despite finishing the season with a batting average below the Mendoza Line (.200), Gamecock nation should have real hope that Tippett can be a serviceable SEC level shortstop this season.

With the aforementioned Petry locking down right field, a handful of transfers will be battling for the two remaining outfield positions. Kennedy Jones, Austin Brinling, Blake Jackson, and Tyler Causey are all in the hunt for starting roles, although the defensive capabilities of Jones, Brinling, and Jackson might relegate Causey to the DH competition.

Jones, the UNC-Greensboro transfer, has the inside track to the left field role after mashing 14 homers last season, while dramatically improving his defense as well. Speaking of defense, the Gamecocks have no shortage of options in center field. Brinling, Jackson, and Evan Stone all provide Gold Glove-caliber defense, but the current situation is most likely a battle between Brinling (North Florida) and Jackson (Charlotte) for the starting role. Both provide experience and have the tools to be difference makers for the Gamecocks. However, if neither of them handle left-handed pitching well to start the year, we might see a platoon between the winner of this battle and Stone.

The DH role is very interesting, so we will take this chance to highlight some freshmen who could mash their way into the starting lineup after leading off with returner Carson Hornung. Hornung did nothing last season besides take incredible at-bats. He saw pitches, worked counts, drew walks, and occasionally came up big for the Gamecocks. However, the results just were not consistent enough to keep him in the lineup throughout the season. He has all the tools to be a weapon at the plate, it's just a matter of being consistent.

Freshman Tyler Zedalis might be in the best position of the newcomers to push for the DH role. Zedalis has the natural ability to force his way into this lineup purely with his bat. The tools are real, and if he can adjust to collegiate pitching this fall, this spring will be fun to watch. Tristan Salinas and Ryan Bakes also have the potential to hit their way into the lineup, but they still have some growing pains they need to work through to be consistent enough at the collegiate level. We would also be doing Dylan Brewer a disservice by not mentioning him here as well. A streaky hitter, Brewer can provide veteran at-bats with surprising pop for someone as slender as he is.

The Gamecock pitching staff really only has four things set in stone, assuming everyone is healthy:

1. Eli Jones will be a weekend starter.

2. Matthew Becker will be a weekend starter.

3. Chris Veach will be a high-leverage reliever/closer.

4. Transfers are going to have an opportunity to contribute significantly.

Will Sanders, Jack Mahoney, Noah Hall, and James Hicks are gone. In step Jones and Becker, both of whom have been instrumental in keeping the Gamecock pitching staff from falling apart at the seams in the past. Now, they get the opportunity to be the guys everyone else looks to for leadership.

Roman Kimball, who is recovering from "Tommy John" surgery, is also in the mix to be a starter for the Gamecocks. All three arms have the weapons to shut down any offense and could form one of the most underrated starting rotations to start the season.

Ty Good, transfer from College of Charleston, also has starting experience and could pitch his way into the rotation, provide length out of the bullpen, or be a very good midweek starter for the Gamecocks. Also in the mix for a starting role are returner Dylan Eskew and freshman Tyler Pitzer. Even if these two don't crack the rotation, they provide pitching depth for a team that has needed it for the past few years.

For the bullpen, Veach, Austin Williamson, Tyler Dean, Edward Copper, and Jake McCoy look to provide a variety of arm angles and weapons with which to attack opposing offenses. Also keep an eye on Sam Simpson, Connor McCreery, and Ricky Williams. All three guys are working back from injuries of varying degrees, and if they can throw strikes, they will be go-to guys out of the bullpen for South Carolina.

Before we close, we must acknowledge the passing of the great Tommy Moody. Every Gamecock fan who ever listened to a game on the radio instantly knew that Tommy loved both the Gamecocks and the game of baseball. Even if we attended games in person, we would always try to hustle back to the car to hear Tommy's calls of the highlights during the post-game show. Tommy will be missed by all of Gamecock Nation.

Wrapping up, we also want to highlight two players we are excited to watch develop, even if it does not mean too much playing time this year: Lee Ellis and Jevarra Martin, both freshmen. Ellis is an SEC-caliber defender already at SS, but his bat has a fairly long ways to go. Once he puts on some college weight and gets settled in against Division 1 pitching, he has the potential to be elite across the board. Martin is a tall, left-handed pitcher who could very easily pitch his way into some innings this season. Control might be a current issue, but the raw stuff is not.

Predicted Stating 9:

C: Cole Messina

1B: Gavin Casas

2B: Parker Noland

3B: Talmadge LeCroy

SS: Will Tippett

LF: Kennedy Jones

CF: Austin Brinling/ Blake Jackson

RF: Ethan Petry

DH: Carson Hornung

Possible Opening Weekend Rotation:

Friday: Eli Jones

Saturday: Matthew Becker

Sunday: Roman Kimball

All pictures courtesy of University of South Carolina Athletics

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