COLUMBIA, S.C. — Not even superstars are immune from occasional big-game butterflies. So South Carolina freshman sensation Ethan Petry didn’t try to play it cool in his postgame remarks after the Gamecocks’ series opener against LSU last Thursday night.
“I felt pretty nervous going into this game,” Petry said. “It was a big game. Number 1 team in the nation.”
If Petry felt nervous, he sure didn’t show it on the field. In South Carolina’s marquee game of the season to date, Petry shined brightest, even brighter than LSU ace Paul Skenes, the nation’s best pitcher and a man drawing frequent comparisons to San Diego State legend Stephen Strasburg for his dominance. And in Petry’s first at-bat, after spitting on a few pitches just off the plate to run the count to 3-1, Petry did something nobody else has done all year: he took Skenes deep, pummeling a 99 mph fastball out to left-center for a two-run homer.
How did that moment feel for the freshman?
“I expected that question coming into this, but you know, it felt good. I respect the elite, and he’s the elite of the elite,” Petry said. “So I just took my jog around the bases, no trash talking. He got me the second time, so we’re even.”
As that answer illustrates, Petry strikes that perfect balance of confidence, charisma and humility — and it all seems natural and genuine. He is quick to smile, thoughtful and articulate, friendly and easygoing, all traits that reminded me last week of former San Diego superstar Kris Bryant, another Golden Spikes Award winner. And though he’s just halfway through his freshman year, Petry is well on his way to joining Bryant, Skenes and Strasburg in that “elite of the elite” category that Petry himself showed such reverence for. Heading into Week Nine, Petry is hitting an outrageous .449/.507/.898. His 1.405 OPS ranks sixth in the nation, and he’s tied for third with 16 homers, and stands alone in third place with 52 RBIs. His makeup has as much to do with his immense success as his talent.
“You don’t predict this for anybody. Anybody. Just special, just special. That’s all you can say,” South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said. “He’s an elite player, and I wish everybody could understand that he’s such a great teammate. Those guys love him. If he wasn’t hitting like he was, they would still love him, but he’s this good, and he’s such a great player and a great teammate, so it makes for a really, really good experience.”
Petry’s presence reminded me of Bryant first, but later it occurred to me that his game also bears a striking similarity to Bryant’s. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Petry’s big, strong frame is similar to Bryant’s, and like Bryant he is more athletic than you might think, having stolen 32 bases in his senior year of high school in Orlando. Some scouts turned in Petry as a pitcher out of high school thanks to a right arm that can produce mid-90s heat, and his arm plays well at his natural third base or in right field (where he plays now); Bryant has bounced between third base and outfield in his career as needed. Like Bryant, Petry’s huge raw power from the right side is his calling card, but like Bryant he’s also a gifted natural hitter who has shown aptitude for making adjustments to improve his approach. In fact, Petry has made enormous strides just since the season started, when he was still battling for an everyday job.
“I think probably the thing that I’ve been the most proud of him is, with his ups and downs in the fall, and then he was really down in the preseason, he really struggled, but he just didn’t let it get to him. He just kept working through it,” South Carolina hitting coach Monte Lee said. “I don’t think any of us saw it coming this soon, but the light switch kind of went off. He made some adjustments. And I will tell you that Ethan is a guy that is very, very mature when it comes to the adjustments that he makes. He doesn’t really seek out a ton of advice, he’ll kind of run things by me from time to time, but he kind of figures things out on his own. He’s a self-made hitter, which I really like, because when he’s going good, he just kind of does what he does. And every now and then we’ll have a conversation about approach or swing or something.
“But he made an adjustment right before the season started where, he really just tried to stay taller, and he had to feel like he was swinging slightly down on the baseball, which really kind of got him on plane to more pitches, and just kind of use his height and his hands. We felt like he was underneath the barrel a lot in the preseason, just uphill and under the ball, so just staying on top of the baseball and letting the barrel work started helping him run into balls. And he has incredible barrel feel. Like if you look at his hard-hit contact strike zone, he’s hit pitches hard all over the strike zone. There’s just not, he doesn’t have any holes, there’s no holes. There’s no real way to pitch him. If you pitch him down and away, or up and away, or up and in or down and in, he’s got extra-base damage on pretty much all parts of the strike zone.”
That ability to handle a variety of pitches in a variety of locations was on display in that game against LSU last Thursday. After turning on 99 for a home run off Skenes, Petry came up again in a pressure situation in the fifth inning, with the Gamecocks clinging to a 3-1 lead and the bases loaded. This time, Petry went down to the bottom of the zone and crushed a Micah Bucknam breaking ball over the left-field fence for a grand slam. Once again, the freshman (who finished the game with eight RBIs) proved able to master his nerves in a big moment.
“Kingston told me to look at him and said, ‘Just breathe.’ That’s our motto this year, just breathe. Breathe and don’t panic,” Petry said. “And that’s what I kind of did. I got a pitch to hit and I hit it. … It was surreal. I heard the fans behind my back the whole game, I was loving it. I was feeding off the energy. It was so much fun.”
It’s obvious just how much fun Petry is having, how much he seems to relish putting on a nightly show for the rejuvenated South Carolina fan base, and how much he enjoys the simple pleasures of being part of a winning ballclub with his tight-knit teammates. There are many reasons South Carolina is enjoying a renaissance this year, but even as a freshman Petry feels like he’s already at the heart of this team’s success, on and off the field.
“He’s just the guy that’s always in a good mood, you’ll never see him being in a bad mood and taking it out on other people. He’s always trying to uplift everybody, he’s got a smile on his face regardless of what’s going on in a day for him,” said South Carolina righthander James Hicks. “He’s somebody that it’s impossible not to root for. So all this success he’s having is well earned.”
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