If South Carolina can win its next two series, then this group might be destined for a serious run at the College World Series after all. That’s a big if.
The Gamecocks started 2-4 in Southeastern Conference play, but are 9-3 since, and are coming off a sweep of Kentucky. Now, things get tougher, as No. 15 USC travels to No. 2 LSU this weekend and hosts No. 3 Vanderbilt next weekend.
USC coach Chad Holbrook has said professional scouts told him that LSU might be the best college baseball team in the past decade.
“Obviously, it’s a big weekend,” Holbrook said. “Obviously, it’s a huge challenge for us. We’re playing one of the best teams in college baseball this year. They’re 38-4. That’s hard to do, especially in the league that we play in. We know that it’s a tall task, but our guys expect to win, too.”
Holbrook will once again go with Nolan Belcher and Jordan Montgomery on Friday and Saturday. His Sunday starting pitcher is probably going to be a third left-hander, Jack Wynkoop, but that depends on if Holbrook needs Wynkoop out of the bullpen on Friday or Saturday, since USC’s middle relief outside of Adam Westmoreland has been so unreliable.
Really, USC has gotten by this year with just five pitchers, which isn’t that abnormal. But these five lefties have really carried the Gamecocks – the starters, of course, in Belcher, Montgomery and Wynkoop, as well as Westmoreland and closer Tyler Webb. Just look at their numbers …
Belcher – 1.70 ERA, 10 starts, 74 IP, 61 K, 5 BB
Montgomery – 1.14 ERA, six starts, 31.2 IP, 30 K, 10 BB
Wynkoop – 3.12 ERA, six starts, six relief appearances, 40.1 IP, 26 K, 7 BB
Westmoreland – 1.81 ERA, 16 relief appearances, 44.2 IP, 44 K, 6 BB
Webb – 0.64 ERA, 19 relief appearances, 28 IP, 42 K, 7 BB
Consider that those five guys have combined to throw 218 2/3 of USC’s total 375 innings – 58 percent. They have 203 of USC’s 347 strikeouts and just 35 of the 103 walks. They have a combined 1.77 ERA. Pretty remarkable stuff.
“They’ve been terrific,” Holbrook said. “Westy and Webb have pitched in all the big situations in the bullpen, so they’ve held leads, they’ve gotten saves. They’ve done everything that we’ve asked them to do and more. Now that Montgomery is healthy, that bodes well for our pitching staff. He seems to be 100 percent now. I like the way he threw last weekend against Kentucky. I think he gives our team great confidence that our rotation is intact. Those guys have been great. They’re the reason why we’re sitting here 31-11. I’ve said from the get-go that I think Tyler Webb is our MVP and he’s been terrific and, in my book, a first-team All-American.
“Left-handed pitchers that have got good stuff and throw strikes are tough. All those guys have a number of pitches that they can throw in any count. They have great command. They can pitch a number of different ways. They’re all unique in their own way. Tyler Webb pitches off his fastball. Nolan Belcher can pitch off his changeup and his curveball. Jordan Montgomery has got a great changeup and great command and unflappable composure. Adam Westmoreland’s ball moves all over the place. They all have different strengths and they can go about getting hitters out different ways. I think that’s one reason they’ve been so successful. Offensively, you have to have a different approach against each one of those guys, and it makes it difficult for our teams that we play against. We’re 31-11 in large part because of the way they’ve thrown.”
Wynkoop in particular has been an interesting case, since he’s a freshman and all of those other guys are seniors, except Montgomery, who is a sophomore who started on the weekend last year and shined in the College World Series. Wynkoop is by far the least experienced, but he has held his own this year. Holbrook reflected Thursday on what he liked about Wynkoop during the recruiting process.
“He was a little bit under the radar and I saw him pitch in Greenville, N.C., at East Carolina’s field (early in his recruitment),” Holbrook said. “He’s a 6-5 string-bean lefty that probably weighed about 150 pounds at that time and he was throwing 82 mph with a great pickoff move. Most times, college coaches want to see a little bit more velocity. But he was young at that time and he was tall and he was athletic. We rolled the dice, and sometimes in recruiting you’ve got to roll the dice. You’ve got to say there’s too much there – projection, athletic ability, pickoff move, he threw strikes, he changed speeds.
“You would figure that because of his arm action and his body type that 82 was going to become 88 pretty quick. Lucky for us, it did. The fact that he was a great kid, a great student, wanted to be a part of our program. Heck, I even liked the fact that he liked to surf. He’s a neat kid. Lives on the beach (in Virginia Beach, Va.) and travels all over the country when he’s not pitching to surf. He went to Costa Rica, I think, before he came here this August. The fact that he could throw strikes and change speeds, even though he wasn’t throwing that hard at that time, attracted me to him.”
Why did the surfing stuff appeal to Holbrook?
“I liked (Evan) Marzilli because he played the guitar,” Holbrook said. “I don’t know. I just like guys that do other things and have some balance in their life. We try to tell them that it’s not all about baseball all the time around here. We want them to do some things for others and go to the children’s hospital and meet some kids, and homeless shelters, and those kinds of things. I don’t mind kids that are all about baseball, but sometimes those kids that are 100 percent all about baseball might let some other things fall through the cracks. He was a balanced kid and that attracted me to him.”
Offensively, one of USC’s most improved hitters this season, heading into the big LSU series, has been sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner, who is hitting .307 with 28 runs batted-in and has a .806 on-base plus slugging percentage. Last season, he hit .222, with 32 RBI and a .728 OPS. Greiner has also thrown out 13 of the 20 runners who have tried to steal against him, compared to 25 of 43 last season. For his productivity, Greiner was named to Team USA’s collegiate national team for the second straight year. A knee injury kept him from playing last year.
“I’ve said all along that I think Grayson is the best defensive catcher in the country,” Holbrook said. “I haven’t seen them all, so I’m biased, but I haven’t seen anyone with his ability behind the plate. I think it’s unmatched. When he was coming out of high school, I think the professional scouts questioned whether he was going to be good enough behind the plate. That’s kind of funny. He’s obviously shown he’s more than good enough behind the plate. (The USA baseball team) gets to play Cuba here in the States and I think they’re traveling to Japan for a big tournament there. I would think he will do very, very well this summer, and that will set him up, because of him playing on the USA team, to be a very high draft pick next June.”
Said Greiner: “I feel like I elevated my game defensively more than last year. Mainly just taking care of my body. Last year, I lost probably 20, 25 pounds and my legs just couldn’t hold up. In the offseason, I did a lot of leg training. Didn’t do a lot of upper body. Just focused mainly on my legs, so when it gets to be a third game in a weekend, my legs can take it and I don’t feel the pain. I can move a little more agile and I can be stronger behind the plate. The key to throwing people out is having good feet, so if my legs are tired, I can’t do that, so having strong legs is the key. I take the most pride, out of anything, in playing behind the plate.”
Greiner used doubts about his defense to motivate him these past two years.
“I think I’ve improved a lot since high school,” he said. “One main thing is that people told me I couldn’t catch at the next level because I’m 6-6 and I’m tall and lanky. I tried to set out to prove those people wrong and taking as much pride as possible in working with coach (Sammy Esposito) in practice behind the plate. The key to catching is catching every ball. If you don’t let anything by you, nothing really bad can happen. So I take a lot of pride in not letting anything by me and controlling the game. I’ve always heard that if nobody notices you at a game, that’s a good thing if you’re the catcher. I think I’ve improved a lot since high school and I think I’ve answered some of that (uncertainty about whether he could catch).
“When I got here, I had a strong arm and I would always try to throw a 1.7 pop time (1.7 seconds from catching the ball to throwing down to second base) and balls would go left, right, centerfield, and Espo just kind of taught me that a 1.9 or 2.0 on the bag every time will get people out, because our pitchers do a great job in being quick to the plate. I don’t try to do too much back there. I just know that if my pitcher does the job, I can put a 1.9 or 2.0 on the bag and get him out most of the time. Thus far in my career here, that’s worked pretty well for me.”
With backup catcher Dante Rosenberg out until at least the SEC tournament with a broken bone in his wrist, Greiner needs to remain durable, and keep weight on, which was an issue for him last season.
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve always eaten more than anybody, yet I can’t gain weight at all,” he said. “Last year, I started out around 225 and lost about 20 pounds. Right now, I’m around 220, 222, and I’ve stayed there the whole year. Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t really know what to expect, so it kind of took a toll on me. But this year, I’m a lot more prepared. I know how I have to do my diet and how I have to do my weight training. It’s good to see that every time I go step on the scale, I’m sitting right around 220, 225. I drink a lot of protein drinks. I eat anything. I go to Subway just about every day. I just had Subway, actually. I eat a lot. I eat more than anybody.”