South Carolina returns to basics, reverses its NCAA fortunes
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — First-year coach Mark Kingston knew the only way he could jolt South Carolina out of its midseason funk was getting back to the basics of baseball — good pitches, good swings and good gloves.
The once struggling Gamecocks turned things around, landed a spot in the NCAA Tournament and are headed to the super regionals as one of the final 16 teams standing.
“They could’ve mailed it in a long time ago,” said Kingston, hired last June as just South Carolina’s third baseball coach in 21 years. “They didn’t. They refused to give in. They continued to make adjustments.”
That’s led to a matchup at Arkansas (42-18) starting Saturday for a spot in the College World Series . None of that would’ve happened without the Gamecocks stellar turnaround after sitting at 20-17 in mid-April and losing four of their first five Southeastern Conference series.
“We had to circle the wagons and we did that,” said Kingston, who joined South Carolina from South Florida. “It was just one thing after another starting to build that momentum.”
South Carolina’s finished the season on a 16-7 tear. That included winning their final five SEC series starting with its first three-game sweep of LSU since 2006.
The Gamecocks, whose chances of making the SEC Tournament were dicey two months ago, were seeded second in the NCAA Tournament at host East Carolina and comfortably swept the regional Monday with an 8-4 win over UNC Wilmington for their first trip to the best-of-three super regional series since the Gamecocks went 0-2 against Oklahoma State at home in 2016.
The biggest change on the field was moving freshman right-hander Logan Chapman into the series-opening role down the stretch. He had allowed five hits or less in three of his final five regular-season starts. Chapman’s emergence gave the rest of the staff and the bullpen a chance to rest and recover.
Relievers Ridge Chapman and Sawyer Bridges, who missed time with injuries this season, were back healthy and throwing strong for NCAA play, Kingston said.
Kingston will start his top pitchers in junior Adam Hill and sophomore Cody Morris against Arkansas.
“It’s a big start,” Morris said. “At the same time, I’ve got to keep doing what I’ve been doing and pitching the way I am.”
For his hitters, Kingston went back to them taking batting practice from 90-plus mph batting machines rather than from someone throwing behind a screen. The Gamecocks improved their run production from 4.6 runs a game the first 15 SEC games to 6.4 runs a game in the final 15.
Their opening half of SEC play included getting shutout three times. They were not blanked at all the second half of the league season.
Designated hitter Madison Stokes said winning the three games against LSU in late April perked up the whole team. “That for sure showed what we could do and what we’ve been preparing for,” he said. “It showed us that, ‘Guys, we got to really do something now before it’s too late.’”
Stokes and the Gamecocks missed the NCAAs last season and did not want to go through that disappointment again.
“To make the postseason, the super regionals, to have the opportunity to make it to Omaha” for the College World Series, Stokes said. “That’s just really special to be in this position.”
South Carolina will have a tall order to keep its run going. The Gamecocks have lost three of four to the Razorbacks this season including a 13-8 defeat at the SEC Tournament last month.
But Kingston hasn’t counted his team out all year and expects their fight to shine through this time, too.
“The fact that we’re here now as one of only 16 teams playing is a great lesson for our team,” he said. “There’s never, ever a reason to give in because if you keep fighting, things can turn around.”