L.T. Tolbert and the Gamecocks greet John Jones after his go-ahead homer Saturday (Aaron Fitt)

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Fitt: Gamecocks Showing Old Swagger

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Heading into 2016, South Carolina had a lot of questions to answer. The offense needed to get better after posting a .257 team batting average last year, but was it reasonable to expect improvement from a lineup that lost its top three hitters from a year ago (the only three who hit better than .257 for the season)? The pitching staff also had to perform at a higher level from top to bottom — but the rotation lost its two best pitchers in Jack Wynkoop (draft) and Wil Crowe (still recovering from Tommy John surgery), so who would emerge as the weekend anchors? And how would the bullpen fare with last year’s closer, Taylor Widener, moving into a starting role?

Five weeks into the season, the Gamecocks (19-2) have provided a lot of convincing answers to those questions. South Carolina’s series-clinching 6-2 win Saturday against Arkansas showcased a number of those answers.

It’s simple, really. The Gamecocks needed a number of their returning players to take big steps forward, and they have. They also needed their large recruiting class to hit the ground running and make a big impact early in the season, and that has happened, too.

In fact, this looks like a completely different team. South Carolina has the look of a legitimate national contender — not based on its 19-2 record (most of those wins were compiled against softer competition, after all), and not based on one SEC series win against Arkansas. But it’s impossible not to notice how much more talented these Gamecocks are, and how much hungrier they seem.

Here’s a look at some of the ways South Carolina has improved, drawing upon some observations from Saturday’s win.

Offense

South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook was very optimistic in the fall that his collection of junior-college transfers and freshmen would give last year’s meager offense a significant boost. So far, juco transfers John Jones (.410/.511/.641) and Dom Thompson-Williams (.408/.521/.671) have been the Gamecocks’ two best hitters. A third transfer, Jonah Bride, has turned in quality at-bats and played very good defense at third base. Thompson-Williams has taken over the starting job in center field, where he showed outstanding instincts and range on a line drive to the right-center gap on Saturday.

But Jones has been perhaps the biggest surprise. Holbrook always thought Jones had a chance to hit his way into the lineup, but he has done far more than that, giving the Gamecocks a fearsome slugger in the No. 3 hole, right in front of fellow power hitters Alex Destino and Thompson-Williams. Jones broke a 2-2 tie on Saturday with a mammoth two-run homer to right field in the fifth inning, and the Gamecocks never looked back.

South Carolina slugger John Jones (Aaron Fitt)South Carolina slugger John Jones strokes a two-run homer against Arkansas (Aaron Fitt)

“I expected him to be a good hitter,” Holbrook said. “I don’t know what he’s hitting right now, close to .400 — I don’t know if I expected that. But what i’ve been so pleased about is his presence. Dom and John and Alex, they all have a presence about them, and I think Johnny kind of leads that middle of our lineup, got a little cockiness about him, that — you know, I’m not afraid to say it, this program’s kind of been built on. He brought some characteristics to our team and to our lineup that we had during some of those runs. As good as he is as a hitter, the attitude and the confidence that he brings is infectious, and it’s made a huge difference in our locker room.”

That hard-nosed, winning attitude was on display a little bit in that fifth inning — from Jones and also from freshman L.T. Tolbert, the fourth key newcomer who has made a huge difference for the Gamecocks. One batter before Jones’ home run, Tolbert was hit in the helmet by a James Teague fastball. He was dazed, and the force of the pitch also caused his ear hole to cut the top of his ear. He was gushing blood, but he argued with the trainer to stay in the game. After a delay to stop the bleeding, Tolbert trotted back out of the dugout and took his spot at first base. Holbrook beamed with pride when discussing Tolbert’s toughness and desire, which rubbed off on his teammates, too.

“There was a lot of adrenaline in that at-bat, after L.T. had that whole thing going on, bleeding from the ear,” Jones said. “I felt like I had to do something for him. Kind of cheat swinging, 2-0, he left a pitch up and I was able to take advantage of it. He didn’t make many mistakes, but that one he did.”

The difference in the character of South Carolina’s clubhouse from last year to this year is very apparent. So is the upgrade in offensive firepower in the heart of the lineup.

Rotation

Righthander Clarke Schmidt has blossomed into a bona fie as as a sophomore, as Kendall Rogers wrote two weeks ago. He was dominant again Friday, and his stuff is simply electric — he ran his heavy heater up to 96 mph this week. But he’s not the only big arm in the rotation.

Draft-eligible freshman Braden Webb said that he looks up to Clarke (“although I am older than him,” he said wryly), and by the end of the season he’s got a chance to join Clarke as part of an overpowering one-two punch atop the rotation. Webb’s stuff is undeniably exciting, but his command has still been a work in progress as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. In 26.1 innings over his first five starts, Webb has 17 walks, including four on Saturday — but he pitched around those four walks and turned in a very good start against an Arkansas lineup loaded with tough outs.

South Carolina righty Braden Webb (Aaron Fitt)South Carolina righty Braden Webb (Aaron Fitt)

Webb allowed just two runs (one earned) on three hits, those four walks and two hit batsmen while striking out seven over 6 1/3 innings.

Both runs came in the second inning, when a walk and an error helped the Hogs mount a rally, but Webb ended the threat with back-to-back strikeouts on pretty 75 mph curveballs — both looking. That pitch is a real weapon for him, showing big 12-to-6 break when he throws it at 75-77 mph, and shorter, more lateral break when he throws it firmer at 78-79. He can manipulate it well, and it buckled the knees of Arkansas hitters repeatedly on Saturday, resulting in four called strikeouts. He got another called strikeout with a good changeup, and he got swinging strikeouts with a curveball and a 95 mph heater.

Webb sat at 91-93 mph for most of the game, touching 94 a handful of times and 95 once. His 80-82 changeup was effective against lefties, sometimes cutting a bit in on their hands, and he threw it with good arm speed. It’s a quality repertoire; the key will be continuing to refine his command. When that comes, he’s got a chance to be very special.

“There were a couple outings this fall where he was unhittable — I mean, our hitters had no chance,” Holbrook said. “So he’s just trying to find his way. I’m very pleased. He had a tough injury, it was a tough one, but he’s worked extremely hard on his rehab. He had a long break from throwing to hitters, now he’s all of a sudden thrown into the fire in the weekend rotation for an SEC team, and he’s handling himself very, very well. He’s got all the makeup, all the physical attributes, obviously the stuff you want in a special weekend guy, an All-American guy or a high draft pick — I mean, he’s got all the attributes. He just needs mound time, he needs appearances. I think every time he goes out there, the more and more comfortable he’ll become. I would think probably come May, you’ll see a guy with much better command and even more confidence than he’s got right now.”

I’ll see another power-armed freshman starter, Adam Hill, on Sunday.

Bullpen

Obviously the big story in South Carolina’s bullpen has been the emergence of lefthander Josh Reagan as a shutdown closer. In nine appearances, Reagan has yet to give up a run while notching six saves. But the Gamecocks are a lot deeper on the mound this year as well, and Reagan is hardly their only dependable option at the back of the bullpen.

More than anything else I saw Saturday, the performance of sophomore righthander Tyler Johnson out of the South Carolina bullpen really stood out. Johnson arrived at South Carolina two falls ago as a classic projection guy — tall and skinny, but with good feel for pitching. He logged just 7.2 innings as a freshman, but he sure looks ready for primetime now.

South Carolina righty Tyler Johnson (Aaron Fitt)South Carolina righty Tyler Johnson (Aaron Fitt)

The Gamecocks showed their trust in Johnson by summoning him in the seventh inning of a 4-2 game Saturday with a man on first base — Johnson proceeded to induce an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. He followed that up with two more scoreless innings, and his stuff was electric. He sat mostly 93-94 and bumped 95-96, but he did it with command, and his delivery has minimal effort. Johnson also showed a legitimate plus slider with late tilt at 82-84, using it to strike out cleanup man Luke Bonfield in the eighth. He fanned the next batter, Rick Nomura, on a pretty 83 mph changeup. He showed very good feel for that pitch, too, giving him another real weapon against lefthanded hitters.

You just don’t see a lot of relievers with three pitches that good, and the confidence and command to throw all three effectively. Johnson’s emergence is a very significant development for the Gamecocks.

“Tyler is a very, very hard worker, to the point where we have to tell him to get out of the weight room, slow down, you’re doing too much. He’s a workaholic,” Holbrook said. “He’s put on some good weight since he’s been here, obviously. He came in here as an 87-89 mph guy with pitchability, skinny as a beanpole. Now he’s turned into a man, and that 88-89 has gone to 94-95. Sometimes, heck, he touched 98 earlier this year. He’s got great stuff. The thing I’m excited about is he’s got great demeanor, great makeup, and he’s got great command. When you couple command with stuff like he has, he can certainly get his fair share of outs for us. And I was really anxious to see him react in a tight game with the game on the line against a conference foe, against a great opponent. It’s been really neat to see him grow and develop, not only physically but as a pitcher as well. He certainly gives us more bullets back there in our bullpen.”

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