USC Gamecocks baseball downs Winthrop behind Eli Jerzembeck

South Carolina baseball’s Eli Jerzembeck practices at Founders Park ahead of the 2023 season.

South Carolina baseball’s Eli Jerzembeck practices at Founders Park ahead of the 2023 season.

The bleachers at Founders Park lay mostly empty on Tuesday afternoon. A smattering of fans littered the concourses and the garnet seats down either baseline, but early start time and increasingly cool temperatures as the night wore on left even the most dedicated tailgaters at home.

The seats directly behind home plate, though, were packed. An army of radar guns and backpacks were tucked between the plastic chairs, where double-digit major league scouts were on hand to see starter Eli Jerzembeck in No. 23 South Carolina’s 19-3 win over Winthrop.

It only takes a batter or two to see why those representing baseball’s best clubs were on hand for an otherwise nondescript midweek game between a Southeastern Conference and Big South squad.

Jerzembeck, the No. 63 in Perfect Game’s 2022 class rankings, fired a first pitch breaking ball low and in on Winthrop leadoff hitter CJ Conrad. He followed that with fastball clocked at 94 miles per hour in on Conrad’s hands.

Such is the difficulty in facing a player with the kind of arm the Charlotte native possesses.

Riding that mix of steady fastballs and slippery breaking-balls, Jerzembeck rolled through his first three innings of work as the offense piled up its first six runs behind him.

He retired three of his first four batters, the lone blemish a first inning double to right field via Eagles right fielder Ricky Teel. Jerzembeck followed the first frame of his South Carolina career with similar stuff, rolling through a 1-2-3 inning — the final out coming on a low and away breaking-ball strikeout of Winthrop catcher Ty Hooks.

With temperatures dipping from 80 degrees at first pitch to the 60s by night’s end, Jerzembeck remained plenty hot. He retired the side in 1-2-3 fashion in the third inning on six pitches.

He slowed some as his pitch count climbed into the fourth inning. Jerzembeck surrendered a pair of singles and a double over his first four batters of the fourth inning. A mound visit from pitching coach Justin Parker followed. Jerzembeck responded with vigor — forcing a ground out and recording his fourth strikeout of the afternoon to end the threat.

Where Jerzenbeck rolled early before a brief bump, the South Carolina offense continued it’s historic start to the 2023 season with a hitting display that’d make the Murderer’s Row New York Yankees blush.

Evan Petry clocked two home runs, the 16th and 18th of the 19 long balls the Gamecocks have hit through four games this season. Braylen Wimmer, Cole Messina and Caleb Denny followed suit with homers of their own.

The start, albeit in three contests against UMass-Lowell and a Winthrop squad that won just 18 games a year ago, is a vast change from the 2023 campaign in which South Carolina consistently struggled to piece together enough offensively to compete as its pitching staff crumbled amid injuries.

Leaving the bump after 62 pitches and four innings of work on Tuesday, Jerzembeck did plenty to inspire confidence the gathered MLB scouts gathered at Founders Park will return for another glimpse.

Those scouts, more years than not, wouldn’t have had to travel to Columbia at all to see him pitch. After teams were unwilling to meet Jerzembeck’s signing bonus ask in the 2022 MLB Draft, he spurned professional ball to spend at least the next two seasons at South Carolina.

He now becomes a cog in what should be as deep a pitching staff as there is in college baseball.

Will Sanders and Noah Hall are as good a 1-2 punch as exists in the SEC, while Jack Mahoney was borderline untouchable in his Sunday debut. That leaves Jerzembeck and last year’s initial No. 2 James Hicks, who underwent Tommy John surgery after his second start in 2022, to split the midweek contests this spring.

At this rate, those seats along the first and third base lines don’t feel like they’ll be empty much longer.

Ben Portnoy is The State’s South Carolina Gamecocks football beat writer. He’s a five-time Associated Press Sports Editors award honoree and has earned recognition from the Mississippi Press Association and the National Sports Media Association. Portnoy previously covered Mississippi State for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch and Indiana football for the Journal Gazette in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

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