COLUMBIA — Surfing paradise could wait. On a morning late last June, Jack Wynkoop opened his laptop computer and followed his future baseball team.
It was playing half a world away, in a far less glamorous place, but a paradise in its own right, and one he wants to experience.
Riding a surfboard and pitching a baseball are Wynkoop’s two great passions, with the wave serving as “his get-away” from the mound, said his father, J.C.
Last summer, Wynkoop escaped to Indonesia, where he carved waves on the islands of Bali and Sumba for two weeks with friends. This summer, he hopes to have little time for surfing, and instead help South Carolina make its fourth consecutive College World Series trip to Omaha, Neb.
While USC lost last year’s College World Series championship series to Arizona, Wynkoop followed along on his laptop from Indonesia, which is 13 hours ahead of Omaha.
He spent the rest of his time reveling in the eight-foot waves that make the country “one of the premier places” for surfing on the planet, Wynkoop said.
The trip was his last big release before he took on college baseball. But based on how he is performing so far, he doesn’t need to get away from the game’s stresses any time soon. He has blossomed into USC’s Sunday starter and has a 2.66 earned run average with 27 strikeouts and seven walks. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in his past two starts, lasting eight innings against Kentucky and seven at LSU, both USC victories.
Second-ranked Vanderbilt visits the Gamecocks this weekend, and Wynkoop will try to extend his streak of 20 1/3 innings without a walk. Because his fastball rarely cracks 90 mph, Wynkoop relies on masterful precision. He got through seven innings at LSU, one of the nation’s best teams in one of the toughest road environments, by throwing just 71 pitches.
“He can throw it in a cup,” said second baseman Max Schrock, who can see the catcher’s location signs from his spot in the field. “He misses very, very rarely. Most of the time, when he misses, if it’s supposed to be an outside pitch, he misses farther outside, rather than letting it go over the heart of the plate.”
Wynkoop is accurate partly because he grew up needing to lean on location and changing speeds, and not overpowering velocity, said USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers, who first saw Wynkoop as an eighth-grader.
Because Wynkoop is a 6-5 left-hander, his velocity figures to increase as he gets stronger in college. Meyers said it is easier to improve an accurate pitcher’s velocity in college than teach a flame-throwing recruit how to incorporate off-speed pitches.
Sound mechanics also lend themselves to precision. Wynkoop excels at repeating his delivery, “because he’s athletic enough and he has good balance,” Meyers said.
Locating an 0-2 outside changeup and pulling off a front-side cutback – the commonly seen maneuver in which the surfer turns back into the wave and carves it in a U-shaped pattern – are two entirely different athletic feats. But in many ways, both demand balance.
Surfing is a Wynkoop family tradition. Wynkoop learned to surf when he was 4 and his family lived in Southern California.
They moved to Virginia Beach, Va., when he was 8 and live about a mile from the oceanfront. Growing up, Wynkoop entered surfing competitions, but eventually, “I decided that I liked doing baseball as my competitive thing,” he said.
In high school, he took a community service trip to Nicaragua, where he and his friends built a baseball field and surfed in their spare time. During summers, he worked as a surf camp instructor. Part of his job involved giving lessons to disabled and amputee war veterans not much older than him. His dad also gave those lessons last summer. Father and son have taken surfing trips to California, and hit the ocean together every summer morning in Virginia Beach.
“There’s nothing much more peaceful and cool than hanging out on the beach,” said J.C., who works in commercial realty sales. “It’s a part of our lifestyle. I miss having my buddy, because he was my surf buddy.”
J.C. plans to soon bring his son’s surfboard to Columbia so maybe he can head to Folly Beach on a free day once classes end.
But for most of the spring, Wynkoop will apply the other lessons he learned after moving to Virginia Beach. When he was 9, he started working with Gary Lavelle, a renowned local instructor who spent 1974-87 in the major leagues as a tall, lefty pitcher, similar to Wynkoop. Lavelle has worked with Virginia Beach-area players such as David Wright and B.J. and Justin Upton. Wynkoop simply refers to Lavelle as “the man” for teaching him how to pitch.
Lavelle was also a pitching coach in the Yankees’ minor league system, and he thinks Wynkoop projects well as potential pro, because of the understated smoothness he already possesses.
“It’s not like he’s a (hard) thrower,” Lavelle said. “He’s a pitcher already. That goes a long way when you get into pro ball, that you have command of your stuff. As you add velocity and sharpness to your stuff, you get even better.”