Last season, filling the starting outfield for the Gamecocks was simple. Put Gene Cone, who was solid defensively and stingy at the plate in right and Dom Thompson-Williams, the power hitter with speed in center and let him run down slicing liners in the gaps. Alex Destino, used for his bat, was solid in left in the back half of the season.
This year the starting outfield picture is a little hazier.
Both Cone and Thompson-Williams were drafted and opted for professional careers, leaving the Gamecocks with one outfielder with more than 30 starts, TJ Hopkins.
Last season, Hopkins impressed defensively, using his lanky frame to track down fly balls in right and center fields during spot starts. This season, he’s expected to fill at least one of the outfield spots.
The others are still up for grabs with players continuing to compete in fall scrimmages. Danny Blair, a natural fit in center because of his speed, is one of them, and he has a good chance to see more playing time this year.
“I’d be hard-pressed to find two better athletes in the outfielder running around out there than Danny Blair and TJ,” head coach Chad Holbrook said. “That being said, they have a lot of improving to do and we have to put other guys out there but they’re encouraging the way they go get the ball and play defense. And TJ is much improved offensively.”
Hopkins, who hit .322 (39-for-121) last year with 26 RBI and 25 runs, has come along offensively this year. Holbrook called the sophomore an “elite-type player” that can hit for contact.
Blair’s impressed this fall as well, batting leadoff opposite Hopkins. Both have played centerfield for their respective teams in scrimmages. Hopkins also saw innings in right field as well.
“TJ showed last year he could play a good right field and Danny, even though he may be limited from arm strength, he can go get it with anybody,” he said. “I love the way he plays centerfield.”
The Gamecocks have brought in freshmen as well to compete for the outfield spots: utility players Carlos Cortes and Christian Flint. Cortes has played primarily second and third base along with left field this fall with Flint seeing time at left and right field as well as at second base.
Flint went 3-for-3 Sunday with a couple RBIs and has blazing speed, but still needs to work on a few things to contend for outfield spots. Right now, Holbrook said he’s in between positions.
“Finding him a position right now is something I’m looking at, but I feel good about the future he has in this program,” Holbrook said. “He’s going to have to continue to play well this year to factor in, but he’s done some really good things. It makes me feel good he’s a part of our program.”
The Gamecocks wrap up fall scrimmages this weekend with the Garnet and Black World Series. Holbrook said Hopkins and Blair will start in center for whichever team they play for.
Destino has started in left for the majority of the fall and his defense has improved since the start of last season. It showed Sunday, when he made a running, stretching grab at the warning track Sunday.
Cortes has shown flashes of what he can do in left as well and at the plate. He’s fast and can power the ball into the gaps for extra-base hits.
With limited practice time until the New Year and a few short weeks after to get ready for the new season, the Gamecocks are trying to find the winning combination in its outfield, and when they do, where does each player start?
“If you look at our team, whether it’s Alex or Carlos, someone’s going to be in left. So the thought process right now for me is if TJ and Danny play in the spring, who plays what position? And I haven’t made that call yet. They’re both doing very well. I don’t think they care.”