By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Clarke Schmidt did not expect to be a starting pitcher for South Carolina as a freshman.
A highly-touted pitcher from Acworth, Ga., he started his career in the Gamecock bullpen. But a month into his first season, Schmidt was forced to step up and become a weekend starter, facing SEC competition for the first time. He made 10 starts as a freshman, using that experience to launch an All-American career.
Two years later, thanks to an unfortunate arm injury that will likely end his college career, Schmidt is now helping other young freshman pitchers prepare to step up in his absence. The unfortunate irony is not lost on Schmidt, who will have Tommy John surgery next week.
"I was kinda thrown into the fire my freshman year and had to be a weekend starter, and that kind of set me up to help them out in this position that I am in (now)," he said.
Schmidt, one of the best pitchers in the country before he hurt his right elbow in a start against Florida last week, is now South Carolina biggest cheerleader and a coach in the dugout as the Gamecocks try to adjust and overcome the devastating loss in the middle of SEC play.
"I have talked to the younger guys," Schmidt said Thursday. "It was tough having to address the team and let them know the situation at hand. When I had to tell them Monday morning, it was tough and I pulled some of the younger guys aside and told them they had to step up. They have got to take a big role and get some innings under their belt and be in situations that they are not used to."
With Schmidt lost for the season, head coach Chad Holbrook has to shuffle his weekend rotation starting with this weekend's big SEC series against Kentucky. Wil Crowe, who recovered from Tommy John surgery and returned for his junior season this year, will fill Schmidt's Friday night role. Sophomore Adam Hill, who also has been outstanding this season, will move to Saturday.
Holbrook will not decide who starts this Sunday against Kentucky until he sees how he has to use his bullpen on Friday and Saturday.
"All hands are on deck in the first two games and then we'll see who we have available and the best option we have on Sunday," he said.
There are plenty of options for the third spot. Red-shirt freshman Cody Morris has made six starts, compiling a 2-1 record with a 3.43 ERA. Freshmen Colby Lee and Sawyer Bridges have also pitched big innings, as have sophomore Graham Lawson and junior John Parke.
Morris, Lee and Bridges combined to beat Tennessee 10-2 earlier in the year and Holbrook believes any of them can step up in and fill in.
"We threw all freshman that game and they threw well," Holbrook said. "(Cody is) certainly an option, but there are a number of guys who are options as well."
Holbrook is not ruling out starting closer Tyler Johnson, who threw a complete game in a win in the NCAA Regionals last year. Johnson is returning from his own arm injury, however, and may not be ready to start yet.
Holbrook says he is an option, however.
"I don't think he is going to be an option to start this Sunday, but I think it is on the table moving forward," he said. "That being said, crazy things happen … But as Tyler continues to get better and improves his stamina, that's certainly a conversation that we've had."
Crowe, who was a Friday night starter before his own arm injury, has also been talking to the young pitchers and preparing them for a greater role.
What was his message?
"It's your time. It's time to go," he said. "You've been playing the game since you were a little kid, and you can't be nervous about the opportunity that is coming. You just have to go out there and throw strikes and do what you have to do.
"I think some of the guys are ready to take on that role, they have talked to Clarke and got his input. We just have to keep supporting everybody and let them know that they are here for a reason. If they are here, they are able to pitch and are able to play."
Clarke believes all of South Carolina's relievers and mid-week starters are ready to take on a bigger role and get the job done.
"Any pitcher on this staff has the talent to go out there and get outs on a weekend," he said. "It's really just mental warfare. It's kinda tough when you are going out there and facing SEC lineup for the first time, especially on a weekend start. But a lot of these can do it. They've got to be ready for anything."
And they will have Schmidt there supporting them all the way. Both as a cheerleader, and a coach in the dugout.
"My job now is to be here and cheering as loud as I can and helping lead these guys," he said. "I'm still a leader on this team and I still have a major impact off the field and I am going to do everything I can to keep them in the right way.
"If they think they can still win, they can still win. Some people are going to be counting them out now that they don't have one of their weekend starters, but that is not the case. We have enough talent to go out there and win every weekend. That's the main message I have told these guys, that you can still win with our without me and I will be doing everything I can off the field to help them."