A few weeks have passed since the Coastal Carolina baseball program finished its first losing season in 17 years, and coach Gary Gilmore already has his mind spinning about the Chanticleers’ 2015 roster and how best to fit the pieces together for a quick return to more familiar winning ways.
But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy moving on from what was perhaps the most trying season of his storied career.
Just recently, Gilmore was in line at a local Wendy’s when a man noticed his Coastal Carolina apparel and struck up a conversation about what else but the baseball team’s recent struggles.
“I guess he must come to some of our games or keep up with us,” Gilmore said. “I had a Coastal shirt on, and he said, ‘Man, we’ve got to do something with our baseball program. What’s wrong with it?’ I started laughing. If I had the answers to it or could change it, I would.”
The Chants finished 24-33 this year – the lowest winning percentage (.421) in Gilmore’s 19 seasons at the school – but his biggest frustration at this point is that all some people see is that record.
They don’t know that he lost two key pitchers before the first game to season-ending injuries, another to injury in mid-April and that his ace left-hander then underwent Tommy John surgery in the same month.
They don’t realize that his blossoming third baseman played through his own elbow troubles most of the spring, his second baseman missed nearly half the season with a concussion and ankle injury, that his team went through the season with one healthy catcher who was never intended to be a full-time backstop in the first place or that a newcomer expected to be one of the team’s top hitters never took a single swing.
“What’s personally so frustrating in turning the page with that team [is] people don’t realize what we went through,” Gilmore said.
Nonetheless, he admitted that such a season “humbles you a whole lot” after seeing the program reach the NCAA regionals seven straight years, and in 12 of the past 13 seasons overall, while posting 11 40-win seasons.
While so much of what happened this year was out of Gilmore’s control, it has still made him scrutinize everything he can control – from how the coaches teach the players to how they approach recruiting.
“It’s almost like starting over,” he said. “This past year was like it was when I very first came to Coastal. That’s what it was like – guys that didn’t understand what we were trying to get them to do, trying to find themselves, trying to figure it out. You never think that’s going to be where you’re at when you’ve had the success we’ve had for 12, 13, 14 years. And it [happened]. The injury thing just wiped us out.”
And the news hasn’t gotten any better this offseason.
Third baseman Zach Remillard, who still tied for second on the team with 32 RBIs while playing on-and-off through elbow pain, had Tommy John surgery early this month and it became a complicated procedure with a cracked bone and resulting issues with the ulnar nerve.
Sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews called Gilmore personally and said there’s hope Remillard can at least be used as a designated hitter or first baseman by the beginning of next season with the possibility of playing third base by April if all goes smoothly.
Hard-throwing reliever Patrick Corbett, meanwhile, tore the ligaments in his elbow again while rehabbing from the surgery that cost him this past season. Gilmore’s assumption as of last week was that the would-be redshirt-junior (who posted a 2.72 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 53 innings in 2013) will have to have another Tommy John surgery and miss yet another season.
“It hasn’t ended yet,” Gilmore said of the injury blows. “But several of the guys are out playing this summer. There’s a lot of positive stuff going on. The biggest part for me at this point is the two drafted guys – can we hang on to them? Because they’re complete difference-makers.”
Casey Schroeder, a big-hitting junior college catcher expected to make an immediate impact behind the plate and in the lineup next year, was drafted in the 14th round by the Oakland A’s earlier this month and has a decision to make about his future. It’s one that will keep the Coastal Carolina coaches on edge.
Schroeder hit .321 with three home runs, five triples, 12 doubles and 38 RBIs in 52 games for Polk State College in Florida this season. Says Gilmore, “He’s the complete package of what we’re looking for.”
And Al Molina, a high school shortstop from New Jersey, was taken in the 29th round by the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I have a great relationship with both of those kids and [assistant coach Joe Hastings] has worked tirelessly on both of them as well,” Gilmore said. “I feel like Schroeder’s in a position where if he gets top-5-round money, then I’ll lose him. If he doesn’t, then I have a chance to hang on to him. …
“As far as Molina, I feel positive about that situation. It’s his hometown team, he doesn’t live that far from there. It’s one of those situations where you just never know exactly. [But] if they go by slot, what that round is worth, I would assume 100-percent he’s coming to school. But at the end of the day, if for some reason they feel they want to throw an extra $100,000 on it, who knows what they’ll do at the end of the day.”
Gilmore was planning to fly up to New Jersey and spend four or five days talking with Molina and his family.
He stressed how pivotal it is for the program to retain players like those two if the Chants are going to get back to their old ways quickly.
“If we ever want to go to Omaha [and the College World Series], which I know everybody does, which is why we built a stadium, why the university supports us like they do, we have to hold on to guys like this,” Gilmore said.
“… It’s a big moment for our program too because if you throw those two guys on this recruiting class, it would be one of the better ones we’ve had in a while.”
As for other roster news, right-hander Seth Lamando (who pitched in 10 games this spring before going down with injury) has decided not to return to Coastal Carolina. He plans to transfer to a Division II program closer to his home in New York where he can be used as a position player as well as a pitcher, Gilmore said.
The Chants are uncertain, meanwhile, about the future of touted lefty Dalton Moats. A 33rd-round pick in the 2013 draft before sticking with his commitment to come to Coastal Carolina, Moats struggled to a 6.46 ERA this spring before being ruled academically ineligible. He’s not eligible to play next season, but the door is open for him to return to Coastal Carolina, Gilmore said.
In terms of good news, right-hander Alex Cunningham – who missed all of 2014 recovering from injury after a promising rookie season – is set to return. And Reid Mathews, who was slated to be a key cog in the lineup as a junior college transfer this past season before being sidelined by a complicated hand injury, is playing full-time this summer while rebuilding strength.
If he continues progressing well, Mathews – and potentially Schroeder and Molina – will join a lineup led by 2014 breakout hitter Connor Owings (.326 batting average, 14 doubles, 4 homers, team-high 34 RBIs and 45 runs as a sophomore), fellow rising junior Tyler Chadwick (.299 average and 32 RBIs while handling catching duties) and several other young returning players who showed potential this year.
Aside from who stays and shows up healthy next spring, the next biggest question for the Chants is how they fill out their starting rotation next year. Only rising senior lefty Austin Kerr, who Gilmore would ideally keep in a swing role out of the bullpen, maintained a sub-4.00 ERA among returning pitchers who drew a start for the Chants in 2014.
“We’re going to make strides,” Gilmore said, sizing up the roster for next spring. “We were good for a long time because we had dominant starting pitching and a pretty good bullpen. Right now we don’t have that. We dominated that league for several years because in all honesty the better players tend to win and that’s what we had.
“Right now, I think position player-wise, if we hang on to Schroeder and everyone, we have a chance to be very good. The pitching thing worries me. We don’t have an established dominant starting crew. If you asked me today who’s going to start, I’ll be honest, I’m at a complete and total loss. [But] if they’re all healthy, I can tell you who our bullpen for sure will be and that part I feel very good about.”
And if the Chants’ luck gets a little better from a health standpoint, well, things can only improve from here.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.