The series opener Thursday between No. 1 Louisiana State and No. 6 South Carolina stood out on the schedule as showdown between top-10 teams and for its electric pitching matchup. LSU righthander Paul Skenes and South Carolina righthander Will Sanders were both voted Preseason All-Americans by MLB scouting directors and project as first round picks this summer.
Instead, South Carolina freshman Ethan Petry stole the show. The Gamecocks right fielder continued his sensational season as he hit two home runs and drove in eight runs to lead South Carolina to a 13-5 victory. With the win, the Gamecocks (28-3, 9-1) improved to 19-0 at home this season.
Through the first half of the season, Petry is more than making his case as the nation’s best freshman. He’s hitting .451/.504/.891 with 15 home runs and 32 runs.
South Carolina is one of the nation’s most explosive offenses – it ranks top-10 in the nation in scoring and leads the nation in home runs – and Petry is its best hitter. He leads the Gamecocks in batting, OPS (1.342), RBI (50) and is tied with Gavin Casas for the most home runs.
South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said as good as Petry is on the diamond, he’s just as good in the clubhouse as a teammate. At this point, Petry is as low maintenance as a freshman could be.
“I just make sure he shows up to the game on time and get the heck out of his way,” Kingston said. “Pretty impressive.”
On Thursday, Petry started the game with a two-run home run of Skenes in the first inning. Coming into the night, Skenes had not allowed a home run this season. But Petry got ahead in the count 3-1 and then attacked 99-mph fastball, sending it out to left field for a home run.
Skenes got the better of Petry in the third inning, striking him out – something that hasn’t happened a lot for a young power hitter. Petry has whiffed 25 times in 131 plate appearances this season.
After an hour-long lightening delay forced both Skenes and Sanders out of the game after three innings, Petry got his next chance with the bases loaded against freshman Micah Bucknam. With the bases loaded, Petry waited back on a breaking ball and bashed a grand slam to left field, breaking the game open for the Gamecocks.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I heard the fans behind my back the whole game and I was loving it. I was feeding off the energy and it was so much fun.”
Petry drove in a run in each of his final two plate appearances, one on a sacrifice fly and one on a hit by pitch with the bases loaded. He finished one RBI shy of the program’s single-game record of nine, which has been accomplished five times, most recently in 2008 by Justin Smoak.
South Carolina’s offense has made a massive jump this year after averaging 5.71 runs per game in 2022. Petry, a prominent recruit and one of several newcomers in the lineup, has played a big role in that turnaround.
On Thursday, Petry and the rest of the Gamecocks showed what the offense is capable of. While the weather limited Skenes, who has been the best pitcher in the country this season, to just three innings, they rose to the challenge and clubbed six extra-base hits against the Tigers. They added eight walks and four hit batters against a pitching staff that does not give out free bases. LSU came into the night ranked 33rd nationally in walks per nine innings (3.59) and 16th nationally in hit batters (21 in 29 games). But the Gamecocks stuck to their offensive approach, ground out at bats and then made the Tigers pay with runners on base.
On the flip side, South Carolina’s powerful pitching staff held LSU to five runs on six hits and just one walk. Sanders, who had his start skipped last week at Mississippi State, struck out four batters in three innings and allowed just an unearned run on two hits and two hit batters prior to the weather delay. It was a solid return to the mound for the Gamecocks’ ace, who will be needed in the second half of the season.
All in all, it was another strong outing for South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ schedule was not the toughest in the first half of the season, but that’s changing now. Starting this week, the schedule stiffens considerably. South Carolina faces LSU, Vanderbilt and Florida on consecutive weekends, a certifiable gauntlet that will either prove the Gamecocks as national title contenders or force them back to the drawing board ahead of the season’s stretch run.
So far, so good. On Tuesday, South Carolina beat No. 16 North Carolina, 5-0, in Charlotte. On Thursday, it took down LSU. A doubleheader against the Tigers awaits Friday, but the Gamecocks go into it playing with well-earned confidence.
“We’ve just been showing the country that we’re a really good baseball team in all areas,” Kingston said. “We can pitch, we can hit, we have power, we have speed, we play good defense on most days.
“I just think every day we have a chance to prove one more brick in the wall, here’s another brick showing we’re pretty darn good. We don’t put too much emphasis on any one day, but I think the total picture of what we’re doing right now is hard to ignore.”