After finishing a sweep of Rider on Sunday, thanks to another impressive start from Nolan Belcher, South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook said he isn’t sure what he will do with his rotation for the Southeastern Conference opener next weekend at Missouri.
USC started the season with Jordan Montgomery as the Friday guy, then Colby Holmes and Belcher. But Montgomery didn’t pitch against Rider, won’t against Missouri and might not against Arkansas the next weekend because of a stress reaction in his elbow. And Holmes struggled against Rider – his second straight bad start.
So what is Holbrook thinking about for the Missouri series?
Belcher has pitched like an ace recently, but he threw 103 pitches over seven innings Sunday because USC needed him to win 1-0. He hasn’t allowed a run in 18 innings, dating back to the Albany series.
“You can’t move Nolan up to Friday,” Holbrook said Sunday. “You can’t move him up two days. In a perfect world, what we wanted to do is score some runs early today and get him out. And it didn’t happen, so we had to try to win the game. Because he’s coming off a complete game against Clemson, we were worried about his pitch count today. We didn’t want him to go over 100.
“Right now, I think the best case scenario is he throws Saturday. I don’t know what we’re going to do Friday and Sunday right now. I would say Evan Beal is in the mix to throw Friday, as is Colby, but we’ll have to watch Colby this week and make sure his bullpens are crisp. I have confidence that Colby will bounce back from his recent struggles. He’s not a happy camper right now. He’ll be all right.”
Beal shined on Friday against Rider – his first start of the season, after struggling in his only start last year as a freshman. He might have the best stuff on the entire staff.
Right now, it looks like freshman Jack Wynkoop is out of consideration to start at Missouri. Holbrook said pitching coach Jerry Meyers could talk him out of this, but the plan right now is for Wynkoop to start Tuesday against USC Upstate, and be on a limited pitch count. That way, he will be ready to throw in relief at Missouri.
“We need him for the weekend fresh,” Holbrook said.
Wynkoop has been strong in two midweek starts, and in his 11 1/3 total innings this year, he has allowed just seven hits and zero earned runs, while striking out seven and walking one. Beal also has a 0.00 earned run average this season, through 9 2/3 innings. He has 11 strikeouts and two walks, while allowing just four hits.
Moreover, closer Tyler Webb has been superb so far: five hits, no runs, 15 strikeouts, three walks in 9 1/3 innings. But obviously, he is locked in to that closer role and won’t start.
While Belcher has a 1.63 ERA through four starts, Holmes is at 4.22. Things are only going to get tougher for USC’s entire pitching staff. Missouri is not a particularly strong team, but Arkansas is. The Razorbacks will seriously test the Gamecocks when they come to Columbia on March 22.
By that time, Holbrook hopes to have centerfielder Tanner English back. He missed the Rider series because of a sore right (throwing) shoulder. Holbrook said it is “too early to tell” if English will play at Missouri.
“I doubt he plays in the midweek,” Holbrook said, alluding to the Tuesday game against USC Upstate and the Wednesday meeting with Davidson, both in Columbia. “He was hopeful yesterday (to play midweek). I think he’s doubtful today. When you have an MRI, I guess you get an injection. I don’t really know if it’s sore because of the injury itself or sore because of the injection that he received.
“He did run around out there and catch fly balls today. I could have used him to pinch run. I could probably use him defensively if it wasn’t going to require him to throw. There’s a long way to go (in the season). I’m not going to risk losing him for the year. We’ll take it slow with him.”
A bright spot for USC’s position players this weekend was shortstop Joey Pankake, who is off to a strong start in his sophomore year. He homered on Sunday for the second straight day. He now has four homers and 14 RBI in 46 at-bats and is hitting .326. He has a 1.041 on-base plus slugging percentage.
USC needs Pankake to be more of a power hitter this season, to account for the hitting that the Gamecocks lost with the departure of Christian Walker, their leader in batting average the past two seasons. Pankake is now hitting in the three hole, lower than he hit most of last year. He is no longer a table-setting hitter, and he is doing well in his new role as a power guy.
Consider that last season, he had two homers and 27 RBI in 239 at-bats. He hit .264 and his OPS was .732. Granted, it’s early in the season, and the stats will probably even out during SEC play. But why does Pankake think he has more pop this year?
“I would like to say it’s a lot of skill, but some of it’s a little bit of luck,” he said. “Most people have asked me where I keep the horseshoe. I’m just trying to shorten up (my swing, as compared to how it was last year), hit the ball on the barrel a lot more and it’s working right now.”
Said Holbrook: “He’s stronger. He’s more physical. He’s worked really, really hard in the weight room. He’s one of our strongest players as far as throwing up weights. He’s a lot stronger than he was a year ago. I think that’s the main reason for it. The ball jumps off his bat a lot more. But more proud of him with how he’s playing defense, to be quite honest with you.”
Pankake had 17 errors last season in his 66 games played. He has three this season through 14 games.