He recognized the sound immediately.
Geoffrey Gilbert has seldom heard it. Just once or twice through almost six seasons of high school pitching. But that ping — that ping— off of the aluminum, that’s unmistakable.
“I knew it was gone,” Gilbert said.
He spun around on the mound to face the damage. The ball was still floating — over the wall, to the left of the scoreboard, about halfway up the grandstand before it landed between a couple rows of green tic-tac seats.
“Laid it right in his key hole, high and inside,” Gilbert said. “It was one of our first scrimmages. I mean, I knew it was going to happen at some point. It happens. It just hasn’t happened to me all that much in the past. So I guess that was kind of my welcome to college baseball moment.”
Gilbert was one of the most dominant high school pitchers this state has seen. His accolades read long — three-time state champion, 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year, 2019 Mr. Baseball among them. He went more than three years at Bishop England without suffering a single loss.
“None of that really matters now,” he interjects. “It’s like you have to prove yourself all over again. I kind of like it.”
Gilbert will begin his freshman season at Clemson this week as the Tigers open the 2020 campaign with a three-game home stand against Liberty beginning Friday at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
It’s been a long time since Gilbert has felt like anything but the ace. He was treated like an upperclassman by the time he was a sophomore at Bishop England. He was teaching guys older than him things like defensive angles and proper technique. Starting over can be such an usual feeling. Gilbert's approach to his first season of college ball has been simple.
“Shut your mouth and learn as much as you can,” he said. “That’s how I’ve approached it. There’s still so much that you can learn from these guys and these coaches. I’ve had way bigger ears than ever before, just trying to soak in as much as possible.”
The last that most people heard of Gilbert was his heroic finish in the final innings of the title-clinching win in the state championship series last spring. Some expected to next hear his name called in the Major League draft a couple months later. Gilbert, for the most part, had already made up his mind though.
He suffered an ankle injury ahead of his senior season. It took nearly a month to heal. It wasn’t a big secret — he hobbled around in a boot in public. He wasn’t really trying to advertise it either, though, mindful that it might affect whatever mental edge he held over his opponent. The game is as much cerebral for him as it is physical. The lion does not warn the gazelle before a hunt that his pounce might be a step slow. So Gilbert covered up the injury and played through it as well as he could.
Pro scouts would eventually find out though and interest seemed to cool as word spread. Forty rounds of the MLB Draft passed — 1,200 players were selected — without Gilbert hearing his name called.
“It’d be foolish to say that I didn’t want to be drafted,” Gilbert said. “That’s every kid’s dream from 3 years old. In all honesty, though, I kind of had my heart set on going to college.”
Gilbert said privately before the draft that there were realistically only a couple situations that could tempt him to forgo college baseball.
He was raised in a household of Gamecocks fans. He spent his early adolescence watching South Carolina’s reign of dominance in college baseball. He tracked nearly every inning of the Gamecocks’ run to consecutive World Series titles. He can still recite commercials of years passed. To him, there was something cool about Omaha and its lore. The history, the fandom, it was all something, he decided as a kid, that he had to experience for himself.
“Winning championships is important to me. It was in high school and even more so now in college,” Gilbert said. “That’s how I measure success. Not what you do individually. So, to me, I want to know what that feeling is like at TD Park under the lights with 20,000 people in the stands. You can’t replace that with money.”
Gilbert arrived on campus at Clemson toward the end of June. Workouts began three days later. Now six months in, his body has already transformed. His biceps have lost some mass. His shoulders have too but they’re both much more mobile now. As are his hips. Gilbert is working to become more fluid, while also focusing more attention to training quick-twitch muscles to add some explosion.
He’s paid more attention to sports nutrition. He also meets with a sports psychologist once or twice a week. He’s reconfigured his stretching routine and is even perfecting his breathing patterns.
“Those are just small things I’ve tried to use to find an edge,” he explains.
But isn’t everyone doing things like that?
“A lot of people are so I’m trying to become that much better at it,” he adds. “The physical, the nutrition, the mental side — I’ve always been big on the mental side of the game — I want to be sure that I’m working as hard as I can in every little area.”
Clemson returns most of its frontline pitching from last season. The Tigers have 11 arms with collegiate experience. They added eight first-year freshman pitchers to the 2020 roster, three — including Gilbert — ranked among Perfect Game's top 250 freshman in the nation. Innings are scarce in the Tigers rotation right now.
Gilbert has sought the guidance of some of the Tigers’ elders. Guys like junior left-hander Sam Weatherly have helped lay a blueprint for successfully transitioning from high school to college. Gilbert is following along. He figures he probably asks too many questions. He’s always jotting down notes whenever he can.
“I can’t help it,” he said. “This game will hit you like a truck if you’re not prepared.”
He hopes to find some work out of the bullpen early. His fastball is consistently cracking 90 miles per hour. He still has his curve ball and slider, and he's developing a nice changeup. He threw relief early in his high school career and some on his travel ball team. He hasn’t done it often the past three years or so but the last time did, he closed out a state championship series.
“Everyone has been absolutely shoving up here,” Gilbert said of the Tigers pitching staff. “The competition makes everyone better. Everyone wants a chance. I love it. This is honestly the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”
There are few things scribbled on a piece of paper hanging inside Gilbert’s locker. Goals he’s set for his freshman season.
“Just things I think are important,” he explains.
They read, in order: win the opener, win the opening series, beat South Carolina, win the ACC, win the ACC tournament, win a regional, win a super regional, Omaha, national championship. No mention of ERA, innings or strikeouts — all team goals.
“Hey,” he says with a laugh that errs more toward sincerity than jest. “I’m here for a reason.”