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BASEBALL PREVIEW 2017

Hopkins embraces new role PAGE 6 Crowe completes recovery PAGE 15

Victoria Richman / THE DAILY GAMECOCK


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Contents The power of three: Bullpen trio embraces versatility

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Hopkins looks to harness freakish athleticism

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Schmidt Friday night lights poster

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Schmidt anchors weekend rotation with lofty expectations

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Destino: Junior projected to have big offensive presence in 2017

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Crowe wills his way back to starting rotation

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THE POWER OF THREE Bullpen trio embraces versatility

File Photo: Olivia Barthel /

Victoria Richman

/ THE DAILY

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GAMECOCK

File Photo: Olivia Barthel / THE DAILY GAMECOCK

Bobby Balboni

@ROB_BALBONI1

The classical principle “good things come in threes” suggests that triads are naturally endowed with qualities of balance and completeness. In art, sports and business, talent is also optimized in threesomes. J.K. Rowling built a multi-billion dollar franchise around the bond between Harry, Ron and Hermione. Constructing a “Big Three” has become the blueprint for success in the NBA, with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers all following that model to a championship. “Culture,” a product of the Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos, currently sits atop the Billboard 200. The rule also applies to baseball, particularly when it comes to building a formidable bullpen. It is always good to have a lights-

out closer waiting in the wings at the end of a game, but the most iconic bullpens are always based on trios of high-leverage relievers. The 1990 Cincinnati Reds famously leaned on Norm Charlton, Ron Dibble and Randy Meyers, dubbed the “Nasty Boys,” to win a World Series. They are often regarded as the greatest bullpen in the history of the sport. More recently, the Kansas City Royals reached back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015 with their own threesome known as HDH. Last season, the New York Yankees briefly created perhaps the most dominant bullpen ever assembled, with Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Bentances, before breaking up the group at the trade deadline. Finding three reliable relievers is easier said than done; statistically the performance of relievers is the most volatile of any position from one season to the next. While South

Carolina’s trio of weekend starters will continue to garner the most attention with pundits, the team’s most valuable asset might be the combination of veteran relievers Tyler Johnson, Reed Scott and Josh Reagan closing out the backend of games. In many ways, the trio doesn’t represent the typical super-bullpen of flamethrowers. Each pitcher has a unique but complimentary style paired with a willingness to be used in a variety of roles. Johnson, a junior who closed games for the Collegiate National Team last summer, is the prototypical closer with a fastball that can touch 98-mph and a imposing physical presence on the mound. Reagan and Scott, both seniors and longtime roommates, do not possess the same physical gifts as Johnson. Reagan is a southpaw who generates swings and misses with a tumbling changeup and stellar command. Scott

has never boasted a premium fastball, but induces weak contact from a deceptively low arm-slot that creates natural sink on his pitches. “We got guys that can light-up the radar gun, and we got guys that can spot-up and get ground balls,” Reagan said. As opposing lineups make multiple turns through the order, the transition from power-pitchers like starters Wil Crowe and Clarke Schmidt to more unconventional options like Reagan and Scott, and then back to the hard-throwing Johnson can create a disruptive change of pace. “You can have the best starters in the nation or the best pen in the nation,” Reagan said. “I believe we have both.” After a disappointing sophomore season, Reagan began 2016 by converting 11 saves in as many

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Hopkins looks to harness freakish athleticism Bobby Balboni

@ROB_BALBONI1

S o u t h C a r o l i n a ’s outfield rotation will include the following players in 2017: Carlos Cortes, a highly-rated ambidextrous freshman with a right-handed glove for the infield and a left-handed glove for the outfield; Brandon McIlwain, a dual-sport athlete who is also a dual-threat quarterback who started conference games as a freshman; Alex Destino, a preseason all-SEC slugger who has played the infield, outfield and pitched at South Carolina; and Danny Blair, a sophomore positioned to captain the outfield in center who is also one of the fastest pure runners on the team. A wild demonstration of diverse skill sets will be on display between the foul poles at Founders Park this season — a bazaar of athleticism and versatility. Still, sophomore

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outfielder TJ Hopkins may possess the loudest, deepest arsenal of abilities of anyone on the Gamecocks’ roster. Hopkins is the unicorn of baseball talents — a genuine five-tool player who can impact the game with his speed, defense, arm strength, power and hitting ability. “He [Hopkins] is a special talent. He can run, the ball flies off his bat, and he plays a great outfield,” said coach Chad Holbrook. “I think he has the chance to be a high draft pick and an allSEC type of performer.” “He’s honestly one of

the greatest athletes I’ve been around,” Destino said.”He is just a freak. He can jump and dunk a basketball and he can run on any ball you hit in centerfield.” Hopkins generates bat speed with quicktwitch athleticism that enables his wrists to whip through the zone. Still, his raw ability was exposed at times last season, with opposing pitchers taking advantage of his aggressive approach, often getting him to chase with spin and off-speed pitches.

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PENPAGE4 opportunities, before blowing a save against Florida on April 29. At the time, Reagan was the SEC’s leader in saves, and while Holbrook often refrained from using the closer label on Reagan, Johnson began to get more opportunities in the ninth inning as the season progressed. Reagan would adapt to a more flexible role, setting Johnson up and often working multiple innings. Perhaps no outing was more reflective of Reagan’s character and ability to make sacrifices than his six-out shutout save on April 6 over Coastal Carolina, who went on to win the College World Series. Reagan held the Chanticleer’s potent lineup hitless during a painful window where he was in-between passing two kidney stones. The trio’s willingness to log innings in any situation allows coach Chad Holbrook and associate coach Jerry Meyers to employ their relievers based on the situation of the game

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rather than on arbitrarily defined one-inning roles. “Me personally, I believe Tyler Johnson is our closer,” Scott said. “We all know that we could come in any role. All of us could pitch in the third inning through the ninth inning.” “It makes us so dangerous — that we are kind of a selfless pen,” Scott said. “It not just us three, it goes deeper than that.” Scott and Reagan were honored as managers of the Garnet & Black World Series, a three-game intersquad set that marks the culmination of South Carolina’s fall scrimmages. Both assumed the responsibility of setting lineups and making in-game tactical moves. The opportunity also added another spark to the friendly rivalry between the roommates. “I have a whole new respect for Coach Holbrook and at the same time I still have a little chip on my shoulder from losing — especially to Josh Reagan,” Scott said.

“If you are talking about the weight room in particular, we [Reagan and Scott] might not be the strongest ones in there, but we definitely are the loudest,” Reagan said. Reagan and Scott are not the only leaders on South Carolina’s staff, and while they might not be the strongest members of the team, the third member of the trio could probably make that claim. “The model that all of our young pitchers should watch is Tyler Johnson — from the way that he works, what he does in the weight room, his preparation — how committed he is to being the best pitcher he can be,” said Holbrook. Johnson, named a First Team Preseason All-American by D1Baseball.com, is regarded as one of the most electric bullpen arms in the country. After recording 59 strikeouts in 52 innings and holding batters to a .187 average last spring, Johnson represented South Carolina pitching for Team USA in Los Angeles, Taipei City, Tokyo and Cuba

this past summer. While many view Johnson as the undisputed closer, he has also demonstrated the capability to be a front-line starter. Holbrook has joked in the past that he would consider him for a Friday night role if not for a crowded weekend rotation. With the Gamecocks facing elimination in NCAA tournament last season, Johnson made his only start of the season, winning a complete-game victory while compiling 11 strikeouts. He had pitched in relief just two days before. “I am open to anything,” Johnson said. “Whatever outs they want me to get, I’ll get.” That Gamecocks will effectively look to shorten games this season. Getting the ball to Scott, Reagan and Johnson will be critical, because their roles are malleable and can be adjusted on the fly. When they inherent a lead, they will be in a strong position to protect it. Their flexibility and collective depth allows them to work in optimal situations.


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F R I D AY N I G H T CLARKE SCHMIDT

LIGHTS

F O U N D E R S PA R K 2 0 1 7 FEB. 17 V. UNC GREENSBORO • FEB. 24 V. WRIGHT STATE • MARCH 10 V. MICHIGAN STATE • MARCH 24 V. ALABAMA • APRIL 7 V. VANDERBILT • APRIL 14 V. MISS. STATE • APRIL 28 V. KENTUCKY • MAY 19 V. GEORGIA File Photo: Josh Warner / THE DAILY GAMECOCK


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Schmidt anchors weekend rotation with lofty expectations Bobby Balboni

@ROB_BALBONI1

South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook had the enviable decision of selecting a Friday night starter from juniors Clarke Schmidt and Wil Crowe, who both received preseason AllAmerican recognition, and sophomore Adam Hill, who was a Freshman All-American last season. He could also have gone with Tyler Johnson, who also has received All-American honors as a closer and represented the United States on the Collegiate National Team. Johnson is poised to finish out

the ninth inning for the Gamecocks, but he did make the biggest start of the year for South Carolina in 2016, tossing a complete game with 11 strikeouts against UNC Wilmington in an elimination game. All four arms were ranked as top 50 players in the country in their respective classes by Perfect Game, leaving Holbrook with a difficult decision, albeit one that won’t earn him much sympathy from other coaches around the SEC. Holbrook’s final call, at least for the first weekend: Schmidt on

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DESTINO Junior projected to have big offensive presence in 2017

Carson Mason

@CASRONANNMANSON

Coming off the most productive season of his collegiate career, Alex Destino is projected to have an even bigger offensive presence with the Gamecocks in 2017. Destino, who served as designated hitter his freshman season, spent the majority of the 2016 season at first base. But head coach Chad Holbrook is moving Destino to left field or the designated hitter spot so he can focus on hitting this year. “After sifting through it, I just want him to be comfortable so he can focus all of his attention on swinging the bat,” Holbrook said of Destino in November. “I think I would put too many

burdens on Alex if I put him over at first.” As a sophomore in 2016, the lefty had difficulty fielding at first base, finishing the season with six errors. But he excelled offensively, batting .321 (75-for-234) and hitting a team-high 10 homers and 59 RBIs. He compiled 14 doubles and scored 40 runs, with a .373 on-base percentage. If Destino can play where he is most comfortable defensively, Holbrook believes the j u n i o r ’s h i t t i n g w i l l improve as a result. Destino is expected to join TJ Hopkins (right fielder) and Danny Blair (center fielder) in the starting outfield positions this season. Per several media

organizations’ preseason polls, the Weaverville, North Carolina, native is expected to pick up an array of accolades this season. Perfect Game named Destino to the preseason All-SEC Team and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association named him to the preseason AllAmerica second team. He also was named to the preseason All-SEC second team on Feb. 9. Along with taking on a new position, Destino will be playing with an additional 5 to 10 pounds of muscle, which he said he put on during the offseason. “I just stayed in the weight room a lot. I

SEEDESTINOPAGE13 Victoria Richman / THE DAILY GAMECOCK

HOPKINSPAGE6 Hopkins struck out in nearly 31 percent of his at-bats during his freshman campaign, but still managed to force his way into a crowded lineup, hitting .322 and slugging .405 with eight stolen bases. “I said, ‘TJ, you hit over .300 last year, you need to be excited,’” Destino said. “That being said, he did hit over .300 and I don’t think he was playing the best baseball he’s capable of. I mean, if he starts to get real smart in the batter’s box, starts to bunt, starts to play the game a little bit, he is going to

be real exciting to watch.” His unusual abilities mirror his onfield personality, at least from the perspective of his teammates. “TJ is — and I say this nicely — one of the weirdest kids I have ever met, in the regard that it’s almost like he doesn’t take the sport seriously, but he does,” Destino said. “His offensive approach is better, he’s not chasing pitches out of the strikezone,” Holbrook said. “He is just a much more confident player this year than he was at this time last year. He knows he belongs. Last year he hoped to belong.”

Power is the one facet of Hopkins’ game that is still developing. His natural hand speed lends itself to hard contact, but his skills translated more to gap-power than over-the-fence pop last season. Based off his fall and spring workouts and scrimmages, there is reason to believe that will be different in 2017. “His bat — I don’t know what he did this offseason, but he’s got a lot of juice in that bat,” Destino said. “Some juice that I think that he didn’t really show as much as he wanted to last year, but I think that’s something that’s going to really come out this year.”

Hopkins has gained close to 20 pounds working with South Carolina’s strength and conditioning team this offseason. There also appears to be a little more loft in his swing, all though he doesn’t appear to be selling out for power. Improved pitch selection should also enable him to maximize his power production. The ceiling for Hopkins is sky-high, and while he is just a sophomore, he will have the second most at bats of any returning outfielder on the roster. If he can make a veteran leap, the freakish talent could materialize into a new level of performance.


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SCHMIDTPAGE10 Friday, Crowe on Saturday, and Hill on Sunday, with Johnson stashed away in the pen. “I couldn’t have gone wrong with any order that I put them in; somebody has to throw Friday and Clarke was the returning Friday night guy,” Holbrook said. “Wil has been off a couple of years, so I just kind of wanted him to get the first day [off].” Crowe previously anchored the weekend rotation for South Carolina before missing the last

DESTINOPAGE12 worked my upper body a lot this offseason, just trying to get bigger,” Destino said. “I’m just trying to get stronger and like I said earlier, I’m just trying to fulfill my full potential this year.” In addition to working in the weight room this summer, Destino also put in

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season and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery. Schmidt stepped into the lead role last season as a sophomore and finished second in the SEC with 129 strikeouts, while walking just 27 batters in 111.1 innings. “It’s just fun getting to work with those guys everyday, those are two great pitchers — Clarke and Wil — and I just try to learn as much as I can and improve my own game,” Hill said. The depth and talent in the Gamecocks’ rotation has made them the darling of many preseason polls,

a consensus top five team for 2017 by D1Baseball.com, the AP Coaches Poll, Baseball America and Perfect Game. The players and coaching staff seem cautiously optimistic about the preseason hype. The Gamecocks were consistently ranked in the top ten before the 2015 season, but then failed to secure a regional berth. “I couldn’t tell you who was ranked No. 1 last year, but I bet it wasn’t Coastal Carolina,” said senior reliever Reed Scott. “We appreciate the people seeing us as a team that’s going to be pretty good

this year, but at the same time we gotta remember that it really means nothing.” Instead the Gamecocks will look to embrace the eternally cringeworthy sports cliche — one game, one day at a time. Fortunately for South Carolina, they will be in the advantageous position of doing it with Schmidt on Friday, Crowe on Saturday and Hill on Sunday. For now.

work with the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod Baseball League. He batted .250 with 27 hits and 15 RBIs in 31 games (108 at bats). Defensively, Destino played in the outfield and finished the summer error-free with 28 putouts. “That was some of the best talent I’ve ever played against,” Destino said. “Every day you were facing an arm

that you’d see in the SEC, so that was definitely something I’m very thankful for. It kind of helped me mature as a person and a player.” While Destino has put a lot of time into his workouts this offseason, he isn’t just focused on improving his own game. He also wants to become a leader for the younger players on the team.

“It’s good for me to help these younger guys, kind of teach them,” Destino said. “The Carlos Corteses and the Riley Hogans. Guys that are going to get a lot of bats this year. It’s good for them to kind of have someone like a mentor to them.” “One of my big goals this year is to be a very good team leader.”


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CROWE

wills his way back to starting rotation

South Carolina right-hander Wil Crowe has earned All-American recognition in his return to the mound. Carson Mason

@CARSONANNMASON

After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Wil Crowe’s return to play for a powerhouse Division I baseball program was no easy feat. But the junior pitcher doesn’t want to focus on the past; he’s ready to be a part of the future of Gamecock baseball. “I’m most excited about putting a jersey back on and being a part of it in the dugout,” Crowe said in a statement via GamecocksOnline. “Missing last year and having to sit in the stands was tough. I’m just glad to be out there again with my teammates.” Crowe pitched with the Gamecocks as a freshman in 2014, earning AllAmerican honors with an 8-3 record and 2.75 ERA. In April of the following season against Florida, he tore an ulnar lateral ligament in his right elbow and was forced to undergo surgery. He didn’t play with the Gamecocks last season and worked through an

extensive recovery process, but will return to the mound in 2017 as a Preseason All-America Third Team selection by Baseball America. “I’ve never had the fear of going back out there,” Crowe said. “After surgery, I told myself that this is God’s plan. If it happens again, then it’s all a part of His plan and the journey. That really freed things up for me.” To help him transition back into the high-level of Division I baseball, Crowe pitched for the Lexington County Blowfish of the Coastal Plain League this summer. He started in the home opener at Lexington County Baseball Stadium, allowing one hit and one run over two innings. He ended the summer with an ERA of 2.50 in over 18 innings pitched to go along with 24 strikeouts. He also mentored freshman righthander Cody Morris, who underwent Tommy John surgery during his senior year of high school in 2015. The pair of pitchers worked out in the bullpen

and weight room together, encouraging each other to push past any injuryrelated frustrations they experienced. “The biggest thing for me was having Wil Crowe go through it with me. He was a little bit ahead, but he was a mentor to me and really helped me through the process,” Morris said. Crowe has been selected in the MLB Draft twice. Fresh off of high school graduation in 2013, Crowe declined a selection from the Cleveland Indians at No. 921 in the 31st round. Most recently, Crowe was drafted by the Indians at No. 632 overall in the 21st round in 2016. Just like in 2014, Crowe turned down the selection to get another year with the Gamecocks and announced his return in June 2016. On Feb. 6, head coach Chad Holbrook named Crowe as the Saturday night starter in the opening series against UNC Greensboro. Fellow right-handed junior Clarke Schmidt will start on Friday, and sophomore Adam

File Photo: Jeffery Davis / THE DAILY GAMECOCK

Hill will start on Sunday. “I couldn’t have gone wrong with any of the order that I put them in. Somebody has to throw Friday and you know, Clarke (Schmidt) was a returning Friday night guy. Wil’s been off a couple of years, so I just kind of wanted him to get a feel for the first day being in the dugout,” Holbrook said. “Clarke has been our Friday night guy, Wil has been our Friday night guy and they’re both capable of doing it.” Holbrook said the pitching rotation is not set in stone and may change as the season progresses. While there was talk that Crowe had a shot at securing the Friday night job against the Spartans, he said that he and Schmidt are just focused on one thing. “We both want to win and that’s all we’re worried about. Whether it’s him on Friday or me on Friday, we don’t care,” Crowe said. “We just want to win games and help this the best we can.”



2017 Baseball Tab