Forgive Chad Holbrook if he does not yet want to consider the daunting challenges coming for his South Carolina baseball team the next two weekends – at No. 3 LSU and home against No. 2 Vanderbilt.
“If you look at it and say you’ve got six games against the top two teams in the country, or two of the top three, it’s overwhelming almost,” he said Sunday. “I’ve had scouts and professional people say they’re (LSU) one of the better college teams they’ve seen in the last 10 years.”
He then spoke the coaching clichés about taking things one game at a time during these next two weekends, but he also took some time to exhale and enjoy what had just happened – the fifth straight USC series that has ended in a sweep, but this one a sweep of victories over Kentucky, just like what USC did to Texas A&M and Tennessee.
“I’m proud as heck of our players, for all they’ve been through, to be sitting here 31-10 and 11-7,” Holbrook said. “They’ve handled adversity well. That shows me a little bit about the makeup of our team. I’m proud that they haven’t let it go south, that they’ve fought like crazy to get back in this thing and to keep us in the conversation of doing some things later in the year.”
USC hit .318 against Kentucky, making good on Holbrook’s assertion that this would be a better hitting team than last year’s group. USC is currently hitting .290, compared to .265, even though the single best hitter USC had the past two seasons, Christian Walker, isn’t around anymore.
This is clearly a more complete offensive team, from top to bottom, and largely because LB Dantzler has bumped his average from .262 last season to .331 this year, and Joey Pankake’s has jumped from .264 to .311.
And lest we forget that Grayson Grainer – who caught 29 innings in a little more than 24 hours from Saturday to Sunday – is hitting .301 this year, after batting .222 last year, when he and Pankake were freshmen and Dantzler was in his first year after transferring from a junior college.
Connor Bright, a freshman last year, also had to adjust to college ball. Unlike Dantzler, Pankake and Greiner, he didn’t start in 2012, so he had limited opportunities, and he hit .228 in 79 at-bats. He has taken over the right field job from T.J. Costen this year because he is a much better hitter than Costen and a much better hitter than the Bright of a year ago. He currently ranks second on the team with a .325 average.
Everything fell right for USC in a big series against Kentucky. Hitters hit (see Dantzler’s dead-center two-run homer on Sunday). Starting pitchers went long when the bullpen was taxed (see Jack Wynkoop’s eight innings in Sunday’s 3-1 win, in his longest and best start of his freshman season). And closer Tyler Webb still looks like an All-American after missing two weeks with an elbow muscle strain.
(And by a taxed bullpen, that means only that setup man Adam Westmoreland, he of the still stunning 1.81 ERA, was unavailable Sunday after throwing 3 1/3 innings over Saturday’s two games. More on the middle relief issues in a bit.)
Webb threw three innings on Saturday (one hit, no runs, no walks, four strikeouts), then turned around and threw the ninth on Sunday (one hit, no runs, no walks, two strikeouts). The guy faced 14 batters in his two appearances this weekend, struck out six and needed just 47 pitches to get through four innings. So he seems just fine.
For the year, Webb has 12 saves in 19 appearances (28 innings), with a 0.64 ERA, 42 strikeouts and seven walks. Nobody will ever forget what Matt Price did as USC’s closer, but in Webb’s senior season, he is showing that he isn’t going to pitch in Price’s shadow.
(And a quick aside here regarding All-Americans, because that’s what starter Nolan Belcher has looked like this season: 1.70 ERA in 10 starts, with 74 innings pitched, 61 strikeouts and five walks.)
Holbrook actually didn’t want Webb to pitch at all on Sunday, but he had no choice after Colby Holmes came in to start the ninth, walked his only batter on four pitches and was yanked. On Saturday, Holmes also walked on the only batter he faced, on six pitches. His senior season couldn’t be going any worse. Still, Holbrook wanted to do all he could to rest Webb on Sunday.
“He said he felt good before the game,” Holbrook said. “He tried to talk us into using him and we looked at him and said, ‘Nope.’ Then you get in a game and he’s begging and pleading to get in there. I’d have hoped that Colby would have gotten that first out and maybe gotten a little confidence and we didn’t have to use (Webb), but that was the decision.
“We knew that Jack was kind of right at the end there. His velocity had sunk a little bit. We were going to turn the game over to our two seniors (Holmes and Webb). Colby walked a guy and had some close pitches called balls and then we have to go to our All-American. We didn’t necessarily want to, but I wanted to win, too. Tyler said he felt great. Again, his injury is not something that’s … his elbow and his arm are structurally sound. If there was a question about that, he wouldn’t have pitched. He wants the ball, and when he wants the ball, this coach wants to give it to him. He’s been incredible all year.”
Webb is an uncommonly reserved young man for a closer, but he did have one of the better quotes of the weekend on Saturday night, when talking about how Bright saved a run from scoring with two outs in the top of the 11th by running down a fly ball on the warning track, giving USC a chance to win the 11th, which it did.
“Maybe I owe him a steak dinner or something,” Webb said.
The fact that all of USC’s Sunday postgame dinners will be celebratory does not change the problems USC has had with middle relievers other than Westmoreland. The Gamecocks simply aren’t getting enough right now from Holmes, Evan Beal and Forrest Koumas – all of whom were counted on to be important pieces on this team, all of whom have shown at more than one point in their careers that they are capable of performing well. Holmes doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but Beal and Koumas have some of the best stuff on the team.
Wynkoop certainly could throw in middle relief, and he has done an admirable job this season of bouncing from reliever to starter. He has a 3.12 ERA, 26 strikeouts and seven walks. His control has been better than that of Holmes, Beal or Koumas, which is a testament to Wynkoop’s potential, since he is still just a freshman. But Wynkoop has seemingly done enough to earn the Sunday starting spot at this point.
“Wynkoop was special,” Holbrook said of the freshman’s Sunday start. “It wasn’t a typical freshman out there today. That was good to see and good for our team going forward for sure. He had a good tempo going, he worked fast, he threw strikes, he worked ahead in the count. He doesn’t have incredible stuff. He’s like some of our other lefties. He relies on pitch-ability and pitching ahead in the count and throwing any pitch in any count. That makes it difficult on hitters when he can do that when he’s ahead in the count.”
Holbrook said he expects Wynkoop to have the Sunday starting job and that Jordan Montgomery felt good after throwing 5 2/3 innings on Saturday – his third start back from a month-long absence with an elbow injury, and his longest start since returning.
“Jordan did feel very good today, and that was encouraging for us,” Holbrook said. “Maybe we’re getting there as far as health is concerned.”
But in regard to the middle relief, how worried should Holbrook be? Last season, USC frequently went with Webb to get to Price. Can a similar situation work out with Westmoreland and Webb in the later stages of this season?
A lot of that depends on whether Montgomery and Wynkoop can throw the type of long outings that Belcher has. Consider that Belcher’s last eight starts have lasted the following number of innings: nine, seven, 8 1/3, 7 1/3, 8 1/3, 6 2/3, eight and 7 2/3.
“I’m going to look at the glass half full,” Holbrook said of his middle relief. “Those are two really good guys at the end of the game (Westmoreland and Webb). If we can get starting pitching that gets us to the seventh inning, we’ll use those two guys a lot.
“But I would like to see somebody throw a little bit better, but we’re getting them in there for one hitter at a time, so it’s not really fair. Obviously, our confidence level in Adam and Tyler, because of how they’ve pitched, is a little bit higher than the other ones. So we have a little bit of a quick hook, which makes it unfair to the player. You just get an opportunity, you’ve got to make the most of it. We’re going to give Adam and Tyler a little bit of leeway.
“We’re going to need Colby, we’re going to need Evan Beal. We’ve had some guys down there with some good arms. They just need to have a little bit of success and get some confidence going. I don’t think we’re really much different than anybody else in the league. You give me two studs at the back of the bullpen, I’ll take that. We’ll get those other guys going. We’ve got to get (Holmes) somewhere where he’s confident and comfortable, even though I don’t want to use him too much if we do throw him Tuesday (against Gardner-Webb).”
That Gardner-Webb game is a homecoming for Holbrook, because it will be held in Shelby, N.C., where he grew up. And now, he can return home feeling optimistic about the team he will bring there, even with two challenging series looming.