Sunday brought the news that South Carolina wouldn’t have backup catcher Dante Rosenberg for six to eight weeks because of a broken hamate bone in his left wrist.
On Monday, USC coach Chad Holbrook said he doesn’t expect to have closer Tyler Webb for this weekend’s important home series against Kentucky, because Webb is dealing with pain his throwing elbow.
“Tyler’s MRI back clean today, which was good news,” Holbrook said. “The bad news is he still has quite a bit of discomfort, some swelling. We’re going to reevaluate him later in the week. I doubt very seriously he would be able to pitch this weekend. I’m not counting on that at all. I think that probably it’s a long shot for the next week (at LSU). But we’ll see. Maybe he’ll make a good recovery toward the end of the week. The good news is he’s not gone for the year, if we can get the pain to subside and the muscle to kind of calm down.
“It’s in the ligament area, which was very concerning to us. But it’s been diagnosed as a muscle strain and no bone chips. It’s a muscle strain or some type of tendonitis. That’s how we’re going to treat it and I think that our medical staff can get it to calm down soon, but I don’t think his availability will be for this weekend.”
USC dropped from No. 11 to 18 in this week’s Baseball America top 25, while Kentucky dropped from No. 13 to 17. LSU remained at No. 3. Vanderbilt, which USC plays after LSU, stayed at No. 2. These next three series will be important for USC, which is coming off being swept at Florida and is 8-7 in the SEC at the midpoint of its league schedule for the second straight season.
Webb has thrown 24 innings in 17 appearances this season. He has been sharp as Matt Price’s replacement – 0.75 ERA, 36 strikeouts, seven walks. That production will not be easily replaced.
Over the past month, Webb threw on two straight days in the Missouri and Tennessee series and on three straight days in the Texas A&M series. He totaled two innings in that Missouri back-to-back and 1 2/3 in the Tennessee back-to-back, which was the last time he threw (April 6). He threw 3 1/3 innings against Texas A&M. Holbrook acknowledged that the amount of work Webb has gotten might have contributed to the injury.
“Quite possibly,” Holbrook said. “He’s our MVP. He’s a first-team All-American probably if it stopped today. He’s been our guy and we’ve used him a lot. Could the stress of using him a lot have affected the muscle soreness? Absolutely. But honestly, he said that he felt it just playing catch. He felt it hurt playing catch. He didn’t have to throw Sunday in Knoxville and he didn’t have to throw Monday. Those two days, he felt great and he just played catch before The Citadel game (last Tuesday) and felt it. I don’t know if he pulled it on that pitch or if it was a combination of a fair number of outings. I don’t know. But hopefully we can get him back as quick as we can.
“We never put Tyler in a game when he was tender or he didn’t feel well. He always said, ‘I want the ball, I’m in, I’m good.’ It was an unfortunate thing. I hate it for him. The good news is, we’re going to get him back, whereas at this time (Sunday) I thought realistically there was a better than average shot he was done for the year.”
Now, Holbrook is turning to ineffective starter Colby Holmes for the late innings. Holmes started Saturday’s series finale at Florida and allowed four hit and four runs (two earned) in 1 2/3 innings before being yanked. He threw just 20 pitches.
“We’re going to move Colby to the back of the bullpen,” Holbrook said. “I think that might give him a new lease on life, so to speak, and let him kind of turn the ball loose instead of trying to pace himself and be too fine, which I think that might have been a little bit of his problems as a starter. So we’re going to let him get in the eighth and ninth innings and see if he can let it go a little bit more. Maybe his velocity will go up a tad and he’ll use his breaking ball a little bit more. He’s an older guy and he should be able to handle that.
“As far as the back end of the game, we’re looking at Colby and Adam Westmoreland. As far as the middle part of the game, obviously we’ll go with Adam some early, just because we’ve stretched him out a time or two. But we’ve got to go with the guys that we’ve got. (Evan) Beal has got to get better. (Forrest) Koumas has got to give us something. (Joel) Seddon has got to give us something. Those guys that have been here, that we’re counting on, have got to give us more than what they’ve been giving us. If not, then we’re going to have to get some quality, quality starts out of Jordan (Montgomery) and Nolan (Belcher) and (Jack) Wynkoop. I think we’ll probably move (Wynkoop) to Sunday now (in the starting rotation).”
Holmes had struggled with mechanical issues, and keeping the ball down, but he seemed to rectify that with strong outings against the College of Charleston and Tennessee, though he struggled against Charleston Southern in between. Then he was a mess again at Florida. His ERA is now 4.28. All in all, this has been a disappointing senior year for him.
“The Tennessee game, he was terrific,” Holbrook said. “In the first inning against Florida, he looked great. Then he went right back. There’s something there mechanically that he knows what he’s doing and when he gets downhill and the ball is at the knees, he’s awfully tough, but he hasn’t done it consistently enough this year. I’m hoping that putting him in the bullpen will allow him to be more aggressive in his delivery. He won’t try to place the ball. He’s going to try to throw it through the mitt instead of to the mitt. Maybe that changes his mentality a little bit and creates some confidence for him, because he does have the makeup to be a good guy late in the game, the experience, maturity. He throws strikes for the most part, holds runners, fields his position.”
As Holbrook mentioned, USC needs more from Koumas in middle relief. He will make his eighth appearance and third start of the season on Tuesday against the College of Charleston. He has thrown just 12 2/3 innings this season, coming off elbow surgery, and has a 6.39 ERA. Holbrook said he is physically fine. His control just needs work.
“His stuff is not an issue,” Holbrook said. “He was one of our better guys in January. We thought we were going to get ready to have a big year from him. He’s just thrown too many balls and worked behind in the count and gotten hurt some. His stuff is as good as what we’ve got. He’s been 90 to 92 every time we’ve put him out there. His velocity is not an issue. His health isn’t an issue. He just needs some confidence. He needs a couple good outings to get his confidence up. And he needs to throw strikes and work ahead of hitters. That’s not what he’s done. Forrest is experienced. He’s pitched in Omaha. He’s pitched in the national championship game. We’re counting on him to give us some quality outings here in the second half of the year.”
Like Holmes, Evan Beal has been up and down this season. He has a 5.33 ERA, and now that Webb is out for at least this weekend, Beal will need to give USC more, along with Holmes and Koumas, to bolster the bullpen. Holbrook isn’t sure exactly what has caused Beal’s spotty control this season. (In his past five outings, including three starts, he has allowed 14 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings.)
“If I knew, I would try to fix him,” Holbrook said. “There’s nothing mechanical. He’s got the best stuff we’ve got on the team. He’s just struggled, for one reason or the other. I can’t put a finger on it. But there’s no excuse for not being able to throw strikes. If you don’t throw strikes, you don’t pitch. I don’t care about your stuff and neither does (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers. (Beal) is mature enough and old enough to understand that. He’s better than what he’s pitched the last several outings that he’s had. He’s got to get it corrected or he’s not going to pitch anymore.”
The only full-time relievers who have been consistently strong this year are Webb and Westmoreland, who a 1.82 ERA, 38 strikeouts and five walks in 13 appearances and 39 2/3 innings, after doing pretty much nothing for most of his career before this season. Does Holbrook worry about leaning too much on Westmoreland, in terms of innings workload?
“I worry about them all,” Holbrook said. “I worry about Belcher. He’s had arm surgery. Westmoreland has had arm surgery. Tyler Webb has had arm surgery. We’ve had some guys that have been cut on. I worry about all those guys. Westmoreland’s arm bounces back better than about anybody’s on the staff. His throwing motion is a very clean one. I’m worried about them all, but in the grand scheme of things, am I worried about (Westmoreland) like I was worried about Tyler? No. His arm bounces back. He feels good. Heck, he wants to throw every day. Sometimes, there are some pitchers that do better when they do throw every day. I don’t know if Adam is one of those kind of guys, but he’s felt great and there hasn’t been any little tweak here or there, other than he had a little bit of an ab pull earlier in the year. But he’s said his arm has felt great all year.”
So that’s the situation with USC’s bullpen now that Webb is out for at least this weekend’s series against Kentucky, and maybe the LSU trip as well. Holbrook desperately needs Beal, Holmes and Koumas to contribute something in order for the Gamecocks to finish strong.
Some other notes from Holbrook on Monday …
** This isn’t a sure thing yet, but there is a chance that shortstop Joey Pankake, who throws 95 mph and is one of USC’s best hitters, could see some action out of the bullpen. Holbrook has worked him there in practice. Pankake is one of USC’s harder throwers – maybe its hardest thrower.
“I have thrown Pankake in the bullpen,” Holbrook said. “We are getting him ready to pitch because we feel like we do need some help in the middle of the game or late in the game. Pankake has got a gifted arm and his bullpens have been very encouraging. That being said, I don’t know if it’s a week away or not. But we are looking to get him in the game as a pitcher.”
Holbrook said freshman DC Arendas would play shortstop when Pankake is on the mound.
“Because Joey is not going to throw three innings,” Holbrook said. “It would be for a short stint. I want to make sure we’ve got a good defender there if Joey is in there for an inning or a hitter.”
Pankake could’ve been a college pitcher – he certainly has the stuff – but he wanted to play in the field and hit. Is he cool with getting bullpen work now?
“Well, he’s on scholarship here,” Holbrook said. “He’s going to be cool with it. We’re paying him to go to school. If he’s not cool for it, he can go play somewhere else. He’s a team guy. He wants to win. Joey wants to do whatever he can to help the team out, whether it’s play shortstop, catch or pitch. Does he want to pitch in pro ball? No, he wants a chance to play a position and hit. But I assured him that when I give him the ball to pitch, I’m not going to take away an at-bat from him or a swing from him. He’s fine with that.”
** Rosenberg’s injury has also forced Holbrook to tinker with the catcher spot, so that Grayson Greiner doesn’t have to catch every single game. Holbrook knows Rosenberg could be out for a while, so the coach needs some options behind the plate.
“Usually, best case scenario, it’s a four to six week deal,” Holbrook said. “In some cases, it may be a tad better. In other cases, it could be worse. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that he heals fast, and if he heals fast, he can get back with us and maybe catch for us some, depending on how late we can play into June.
“Right now, I think Patrick Harrington would have to be the backup catcher, but we’re going to work some other guys in there, too. Brison Celek caught in high school. Heck, even Joey Pankake could probably put on the gear and do very well back there. Erik Payne also caught for us some in emergency situations last year. We’ve got enough guys, but Dante is a big blow.”
** In his two starts since returning from a sore elbow, ace Jordan Montgomery has thrown four innings (59 pitches) and three innings (66 pitches). Holbrook expected Montgomery might lack energy at Florida, but it’s nothing the staff is alarmed about at this point.
“He was a little tired from fatigue,” Holbrook said. “He’s OK pain wise. I think it’s more fatigue. I think it’s more trying to get his arm back in shape. His results have been fine. But his stuff in Knoxville was a lot better than it was in Gainesville. His velocity, his changeup. He just pitched on sheer guts on Saturday (at Florida) and gave us three innings just on sheer determination. But hopefully he’ll be a little bit more healthy and his arm will have a little bit more life in it this Saturday. Usually, and this isn’t certainly every occurrence, when somebody has been out a while with an injury, a starting pitcher that’s been out three or four weeks, usually it’s that second outing that they feel it, historically.
“We were thinking that he might lack a little bit of life (in his arm at Florida), just because he’s coming off an injury and all of a sudden, he’s getting his arm up, he’s getting his bullpens going, and then he doesn’t have much in the tank when he gets to start. I think that’s what we saw. He had no soreness. He’s fine, he’s healthy, he’s working out in the weight room, and his arm feels fine today. We just hope he gets his life back in his arm and pitches in that 87, 88 mph range, instead of 83, 84.”
** USC had a chance to win the first two games at Florida, but lost 3-2 and 4-3 despite out-hitting the Gators 9-7 in the first game and 10-8 in the second. But USC also led Florida in runners left on base in those games, 9-4 and 10-7. Then USC got smoked on Saturday, 14-5.
“You sit there and you analyze the first two games, and we out-hit them both games and we got a complete game from a pitcher (Belcher in the first game),” Holbrook said. “If you told me that going down there on Wednesday, that the first two games you’re going to out-hit them both games and you’re going to get a complete game, you should get one of those games. But we didn’t. They got the big hits and we didn’t. For the most part, we did some things OK in the first two games. Our bullpen pitching wasn’t very good after Westmoreland and Wynkoop. I thought they were pretty darn good. We weren’t good on Saturday by any stretch in the bullpen. The first two games, we had a few blunders defensively and we couldn’t get a big hit. We had people out there (on the bases) all day. We just couldn’t get a big hit. And Florida did. That’s why they won.”
As USC tries to bounce back this weekend, “I think asking for sweeps in this league is a little bit too much,” Holbrook said. “It usually doesn’t happen in this league. So I think if you’re counting on a sweep, you’re counting wrong. On top of that, the strength of our schedule is extremely difficult. We’re not in a good spot. I’ll be the first to tell you. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say, ‘Hey, we’re OK,’ because I don’t feel that way. I feel that we’ve got to try to win Friday night and see if we can get back three, four, five games over .500, which is going to be extremely difficult to do.”
** A bright spot for USC on Saturday: seeing former ace Michael Roth get the win in his Major League debut for the Los Angeles Angels.
“It’s incredible,” Holbrook said. “That was one sliver of good news on the bus on the way home from Gainesville, which was one of the most miserable bus rides I’ve had in my coaching career. Our players were excited watching that on the bus on the way home. It’s really, really neat for our team and our program, and I’m sure it’s awful special for Michael. A journalist that I know very well told me that the reason they brought him up was he relished the spotlight and he always pitched well on a big stage. I guess that might be a good GM or scouting director or whoever made that decision (to call Roth up), because that’s what (Roth) does and obviously that’s what he did. They felt so good about his maturity and his ability to throw strikes and not be fazed by the moment. That’s Michael Roth.”
** How did Holbrook address his players after the sweep?
“I didn’t sugarcoat anything,” he said. “I can’t lie to them. I just told them that, hey, we’re 8-7 in the league and there are some teams in our league that would like to be 8-7, so it’s not the end of the world, but we’ve got to play a lot better. We’ve got to play with a little bit more of a sense of urgency. We’ve got to execute more. I’m not going to hear this stuff about the injuries and excuses and all that stuff. We’ve got to go out there and try to find a way to win. We’ve got huge challenges in front of us to try to stay .500 or above in this league. We’re going to have to play better to be able to get that done. It would help if we get some of our guys back, but you know what, whoever is dressed and whoever is healthy, it’s the University of South Carolina baseball program and we’ve got to try to figure out a way to win and put ourselves in a little bit better spot. It’s not going to be easy. They didn’t need to be kicked any harder than they were already kicked by Florida. That wouldn’t have done any good. But they’ve come back with a good attitude this week. I think they’ve been a little bit more upset and have had a little bit of chippy-ness going on. I hope that will show up in the way that we play, but who knows?
“You get your butt kicked, something’s got to hurt. We’re expected to win here. We’ve been swept at Florida before. It’s not the first time, but they played great and we couldn’t get timely hits. I think it was a little bit of an educational experience for some of our younger guys knowing the fine line. The margin of error is so small in this league. If you don’t step up there and get big hits through will and determination and fight at the plate, then the other team is going to get the better of you. That’s what we saw, that’s what I saw and that’s what just what I told them. I told them we’ve got to compete harder and play better. It doesn’t get any easier in this league, but we are looking forward to the challenges in front of us.
“You look at our numbers offensively (.284, .254 in SEC), I’ve got no problem with our improvement we’ve made the last couple weeks since we’ve kind of settled some things down lineup-wise. Our numbers aren’t terrible. We’ve got to play a little bit cleaner defensively and have got to get some timely hits. We’ve won a lot of games here getting five or six hits a game. But those five or six are big hits. But the other day, we got 10 or 11 or nine and out-hit them and they get seven, but we don’t have any big ones. We’re hitting good with the bases empty and I hope that’s not a trap that’ll be consistent that we fall into the rest of the year. I don’t have any problem with the talent that we’re putting out there. We’ve got good enough players. I thought that this team would be a better offensive team than we were a year ago (when USC hit .265) and based on the numbers, that has a chance to be the case. But we’ve got to get bigger hits, we’ve got to be a little bit tougher with two strikes and we’ve got to play cleaner defense.”
** USC was 8-7 at the midpoint of the SEC schedule last year, but went into the midpoint having swept Mississippi State. So there was a big difference between going into that series 5-7 and coming out 8-7, versus going into the Florida series 8-4 and coming out 8-7.
“It feels a lot different, to be honest with you,” Holbrook said. “We were sitting here 8-4 (before the Florida series) and we had a chance to win realistically two games and were hoping we could come out of that series at worst 9-6, at best 10-5. So it doesn’t feel good. On top of that, I’m not taking anything away from our opponents last year, but our schedule doesn’t set up this year, as far as home and road, like it did last year. We had the ability last year to have a couple good ones together and we ended up winning (12) in a row (including the first seven of the second half). But it doesn’t set up that way this year. You’ve got Kentucky, who is very good. You’ve got to go to LSU, which some scouts have said is the best college team they’ve seen in the last 10 years.
“It’s going to be a battle until the last game and a struggle until the last game. We’ve just got to try to fight like crazy to keep our head above water. There’s been many a team in the SEC go 15-15 and find their way to Omaha. So if you stay .500 or higher in this league, you have a chance to be hardened enough to get there. If you play well at the right time, you can get there. Honestly, that’s in my thought process, just keep trying to win your next game because the schedule is not set up the way it was last year to make a similar run, in my opinion. I told them that before we played Game 1, that it was important to get off to a good start because you’re not going to make a miraculous turnaround like we did last year. I believe that. That being said, it’s baseball and you’ve got to go play and we’ve got some players, but I don’t necessarily feel great about where we are.”