Gamecock baseball rallying around injured Clarke Schmidt

Gamecock baseball rallying around injured Clarke Schmidt

The South Carolina baseball team was coming off a tough weekend, losing another SEC series and dropping two of three games to Florida in dramatic, heartbreaking fashion. 

They were reeling. And then, on Tuesday, things only got worse. Much worse. 

That's when the team got the news that ace pitcher Clarke Schmidt had torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and would miss the rest of the season after having Tommy John surgery. 

"It was a jolt," head coach Chad Holbrook said. 

"You get this sick feeling in your stomach," said starting pitcher Wil Crowe, who suffered the same injury on the same field two years ago and missed all of last season. "You just never want that to happen to anybody. He's one of my closest friends, my brother, and it hit me, I think, a little harder than it hit him."

When Schmidt, one of the top pitchers in the country, delivered the news to his team Tuesday, it was an emotional moment. For Schmidt, and his teammates. 

"That's a tough pill to swallow right there," catcher Chris Cullen said. "Clarke has worked his tail off all year trying to put us in the best position to succeed and win. To hear the news from him, he got emotional when he was talking to the team and we got emotional, too. But we've got his back and we're praying for him."

The devastating injury couldn't have come at a worse time for the Gamecocks, who have lost four straight SEC series and nine of its last 15 games. After losing two of three to Florida, South Carolina dropped to 24-15 overall and 9-9 in the SEC. 

This weekend they face red-hot Kentucky, which is 29-13, 12-6 in the SEC and leads South Carolina in the SEC East by three games. 

Holbrook admits his team did not take the news well at first.

"The first couple of hours weren't really good, I'll be honest with you," he said. "You are a little bit down in the dumps because you lost a tough series and you are hopeful your top pitcher is going to be OK, and then you are dealt another setback. They are kids, they hung their heads a little bit. But you can only hang them for a few minutes, then you have to pick them back up and get back out there and practice." 

Holbrook was encouraged, however, by the way his team responded the rest of the week. He said Thursday he liked the energy, cameraderie and work ethic his team has shown this week and pronounced them in good spirits. 

"They responded the right way, but you are not going to ultimately be able to tell until you see how they respond between the white lines in a game," he said. "If I can tell anything about how they have gone about their work this week, they have handled it the right way. It was an initial setback, but kids are resilient. They have picked themselves back up and rallied around each other. Now we have to go try to play some great baseball to beat a great team." 

Crowe, who will fill Schmidt's role as the Friday night starter against Kentucky, said the team had its best week of practice this year after learning about Schmidt's injury. 

"We've been lively, we've been energetic, the guys have been joking around, we've actually got coach to smile a little bit. It's been good," he said. "We're trying to stay loose and have fun. That's all the game is. If we aren't having fun, we can't succeed. We're just trying to enjoy the ride and enjoy the process and get through this and have a good weekend." 

Crowe said the team will use the latest setback as a rallying point to hopefully turn around what has been a disappointing season. 

"I know we are going to rally behind him," he said.  "We are not necessarily playing for him, but use him and let him be our support system and he's going to be cheering for us. He's going to do as much as he can to help us win." 

"He told us not to play for him this season, but play for each other and that's what we are going to do," Cullen said. "But he is part of us, so we are going to play for each other and we feel like we have something to prove and it's going to fire us up and hopefully we come out and play the kind of baseball we are capable of."

As for Schmidt, he was positive and upbeat Thursday and doing his best to keep things in perspective. While such news might crush some athletes, Schmidt has been through worse. His brother Clate, a pitcher for Clemson, battled through cancer to finish his college career and is now pitching in the Detroit Tigers organization. 

"Obvoiously it has been devastating for me. I wasn't expecting that when I went to the doctor that morning," Schmidt said. "… It's a tough pill to swallow but … I had to deal with my brother who had cancer at 21, so if this is the worse thing that I have for the rest of my life, I'll be alright. 

"I am ready for the long road ahead. I am going to treat the rehab process like every Friday night game and attack each day and try to get better and get back to where I can get back on the mound and compete again."

In the meantime, Holbrook expects Schmidt to be the team's biggest cheerleader. He hopes Schmidt brings some energy and inspiration just by being around his teammates after he has surgery next week and while he rehabs.  

"I hope he's out biggest cheerleader and creates some emotion in our dugout and give our guys some confidence and be there for guys when things don't go well and pick them up," Holbrook said. "I hope he is just a bundle of energy in our dugout and creates some energy not only for our players in the dugout but maybe for our fans who are watching them." 

Holbrook said the way Schmidt is handling the injury has already provided some inspiration. 

"You feel good when you see a guy who has gone through a lot and has some really tough news when you feel like he is OK," he said. "I told Clarke, it's going to make a huge impact on your team if you can let them know that everything is OK and you are handling this the right way and you are smiling and you have a bright future in front of you, and while you are disappointed, you are also going to be there for them. 

"That will make some of his teammates feel good, and hopefully play good. He has a powerful influence on his teammates because of the respect he demands and how hard he has worked. I have no doubt he will have a positive impact on our team in the dugout, in the locker room and on the practice field as we go forward."

Cullen said the team is heeding that message.

"You are going to get bad news in life, but we have a job to do right now," he said. "We have a ton of games in front of us and the quicker we get past it the better. We have a good team in front of us and we have some critical wins to get down the stretch. We've got to put it behind us and continue."