South Carolina baseball fans aren’t used to losing seasons. Former head coach Ray Tanner set the bar so high with his College World Series runs that anything short of Omaha or a super regional often elicits disappointment.
Fan frustration could reach a fever pitch this summer after the Gamecocks (27-28, 13-17 SEC) fell short of the postseason and suffered their first losing season since 1996 — the season before Tanner took the reins. Fifth-year head coach Mark Kingston is well aware of that sentiment, and he had a message to share with disappointed fans following USC’s one-and-done showing in the SEC tournament.
“We’re all disappointed,” Kingston said, emotions still raw following the 2-1 extra-inning loss to Florida. “But the word ‘context’ is what matters most. When you factor in you had 10 pitchers throughout the course of the season that pitched either very, very little or not at all, and what kind of impact they would have on our won-loss record.
“... It handcuffed us — it just did. And there are days I look up and say, ‘Man, how did we win that many?’ And there are days that you look up and you say, ‘Man, if we had this guy or that guy, just two or three of the 10, it’s a completely different season. ‘ ”
That answer could sound like an excuse to some, but there’s no question the Gamecocks’ pitching staff was sapped by injuries, leaving the team’s bullpen especially thin and prone to late-game meltdowns. But just how different could’ve USC’s season been had the pitching staff been healthy, well-stocked and reliable?
The Gamecocks won four of their 10 SEC weekend series this season. However, the Gamecocks were in position to win four more of those series before their bullpen blew late leads.
There were five games in particular that could’ve changed the nature of USC’s season:
April 2, Game 2 at Missouri: Gamecocks led Missouri 5-2 before the Tigers scored six runs in the final two innings against four different relievers. USC won Game 1.
April 8, Game 1 vs. Georgia: Gamecocks led Georgia for eight innings before the Bulldogs scored two runs in the ninth against Cade Austin. USC won Game 2.
April 22, Game 1 at Auburn: Gamecocks tied with Auburn before the Tigers scored three runs in the seventh and eighth against C.J. Weins and John Gilreath.
April 23, Game 2 at Auburn: Gamecocks led Auburn 6-3 before the Tigers scored five runs in the seventh and eighth against Noah Hall and Matthew Becker.
May 7, Game 2 at Texas A&M: Gamecocks led Texas A&M 10-6 in the top of the eighth. Aggies won 13-12, rallying against Austin and Becker. Gamecocks won Game 3.
Had USC held on to win those fives games, the Gamecocks would have clinched each of those series — giving them eight SEC series wins — and their record would’ve swelled from 27-28 (13-17) to 32-23 (18-12). The 18-12 mark in the SEC would’ve tied with the NCAA regional-bound Arkansas Razorbacks for the third-best SEC record, and the 32-23 overall record isn’t far off from last year’s Gamecocks team (34-23, 16-14), which hosted a regional in Columbia as a No. 2 seed.
Of course, having a healthy pitching staff does not guarantee that USC would have held on to all of those leads, but it could’ve swung at least a couple of those losses in the other direction. Even more, the Gamecocks might not have lost RPI-sinking midweek games to the likes of Presbyterian, The Citadel and USC Upstate if they weren’t forced to save all of their best arms for the weekend.
The numbers bear out just how thin USC’s staff was this season. During SEC play, the Gamecocks essentially leaned on just four pitchers: sophomore Will Sanders and junior Noah Hall in the rotation, and freshmen Cade Austin and Matthew Becker out of the bullpen. Those four pitchers alone combined to throw 70% of the team’s 259.1 innings in conference play. When those pitchers weren’t getting outs, USC wasn’t winning games, especially with an offense that also ranked near the bottom of the SEC in most statistical categories.
For Kingston and his staff, the context of those injuries is enough to put USC’s down year in perspective.
Kingston will be back for the 2023 season, according to a Friday report from D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers. It’s conceivable that the coach’s contract buyout played a role in keeping him in Columbia — at the least because the school so recently paid departed coaches Will Muschamp and Frank Martin almost $16 million combined.
Just last summer the Gamecocks inked Kingston to a two-year contract extension, and in doing so they reset his contract buyout after this season from $800,000 up to $2.2 million. At the time of the extension, Tanner said that Kingston had built “a successful program” but needed to take the next step and reach the postseason with more regularity.
“Ideally, you want to be in the postseason, be playing at home at the end of the year,” Tanner said. “And we had a good talk about that. That’s what this program is accustomed to over the years, and we’d like to have that on a regular basis.”