South Carolina has its second big series of the season this weekend, as the Gamecocks welcome Arkansas to town.
This isn’t quite as heated as the Clemson series, but the Gamecocks and Razorbacks did meet six times last year. USC won the season series in Fayetteville, two games to one, including an 8-6, 10-inning USC win in the opener and a 7-6 Arkansas victory in Game 2.
Then they played three times in the College World Series. Arkansas won the first game, 2-1, and then USC beat the Razorbacks on back-to-back days – 2-0 and 3-2 – to eliminate them.
This weekend is USC’s second SEC series of the season, after a 2-1 series victory last weekend at Missouri, but this one certainly has more juice than USC-Missouri.
It is the first of two consecutive big home series for the Gamecocks, as Texas A&M comes to town next weekend.
USC has hit pretty well this season, with a .286 team batting average in the first 21 games, but the Gamecocks did score just six runs last weekend at Missouri – four in the first game, two in the second.
Arkansas’ pitching staff will be USC’s biggest test to date. The Razorbacks start righty Barrett Astin (1.90 ERA), righty Ryne Stanek (3.32) and lefty Randall Fant (1.12). They have combined for 46 strikeouts and 17 walks, with 13 of those walks coming from Stanek. Fant hasn’t walked anybody in 16 innings, and he has 13 strikeouts. While USC has a 2.18 team ERA, Arkansas’ is 1.81.
“I told our guys yesterday that we’re going to face three Friday night starters this weekend and I certainly believe that,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said Thursday. “They’re very, very, very good. It’s a staff that reminds you of those Florida staffs that were so good. I don’t know if getting to the bullpen is going to do you any favors either.
“I would expect the games to be extremely competitive and tight and low scoring this weekend, based on their pitching staff and based on ours.”
With runs at a premium, look for Holbrook to do some things to manufacture them when he gets guys on.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “We’re going to have to put runners in scoring position as best we can. If we get a guy on first base, we’ve got to either run him or we’ve got to hit and run or we’ve got to use the sac bunt. We’ve got to get guys in scoring position, because I don’t think you’re going to get three hits in a row against these guys. You’ve got to try to find a way to put some pressure on them. If they do have one area that kind of jumps out at you on the stat sheet is they are fielding .961, so we’ve got to put the ball in play. We’ve got to keep our strikeouts down and make them make plays.”
While USC’s pitching staff has been strong, questions remain. Friday starter Jordan Montgomery remains shelved with a bone stress reaction in his elbow, though it has healed and he is working his way back. The original Saturday starter, Colby Holmes, has been a disaster and lost his spot to Nolan Belcher, who began the season as the Sunday guy.
Belcher has been strong, and so has Evan Beal, who got the past two Friday starts. But what will Holbrook do with the Sunday spot this weekend?
“Might not know until Saturday night,” Holbrook said. “I’m not leaning in any direction. Obviously (Jack) Wynkoop threw the ball well. But if we have to use Wynkoop or Colby Holmes to help us win Saturday, we might just do it, and that’s the main reason for the TBA on Sunday. We try to win our next game around here. Certainly it’s a strong possibility it’s either going to be Wynkoop or Holmes.”
Wynkoop, a freshman lefty, has a 1.40 ERA this season, with 13 strikeouts and three walks, and has started three games – Furman, Ball State and The Citadel. Holmes through five starts has a 5.16 ERA with 17 strikeouts and 11 walks.
What’s been going on with Holmes, who has allowed 11 earned runs in his past three starts (10 1/3 innings)?
“That’s a difficult question, and we’re trying to figure that out,” Holbrook said. “If I knew, we would have fixed it a week ago. Mechanically, he did have a few issues, we thought, against Clemson. Those got ironed out. His bullpens have been great. For whatever reason, he’s just pitched up in the zone a little bit more than he usually does and his command hasn’t been there. He’s not one of those guys that’s going to blow you away with great stuff. If he doesn’t have great command, either inside the strike zone or outside the strike zone, he’s going to struggle.
“He just hasn’t been able to put the ball where he wants to put it. I think it’s more mechanical, but I think also, his confidence has been shaken a tad. But he’s had a good week of practice. He was good in the bullpen the other night at The Citadel when we were thinking about putting him in there. We’ve got to get Colby Holmes in there. We’ve got to get him going. In some capacity, he’s got to help. For us to have the year we want to have, Colby Holmes has got to be a big factor in it.”
Nobody on the USC staff has better numbers than Belcher – 1.25 ERA through five starts, with 36 strikeouts and just one walk in 36 innings. His past three starts, he has gone nine, seven and 8 1/3 innings. He hasn’t allowed a run in 26 1/3 innings.
“If you ask me if I’m surprised at his numbers, I would have to say yes,” Holbrook said. “Anybody would be. Those are crazy. It’s unheard of. He’s one of those guys that we’ve thought had a chance to – I don’t want to say put up numbers like that – but to be a frontline SEC guy. We’ve always thought that. He just has battled the injury bug.
“Now his command is back. Now he has confidence. Now he can throw any pitch in any count. And he’s left-handed and his stuff is pretty good. When you throw in the fact that he’s left-handed, his stuff is pretty good and he’s got incredible makeup, a tough nut, those guys are tough to handle. He’s been terrific. I hope like crazy he can keep building on it, even though for him to keep at that pace, that would be difficult to do.”
Speaking of the injury bug, USC is dealing with several injuries, and Holbrook offered some updates on them Wednesday …
** CF Tanner English – Missed five straight games with a shoulder injury, played as a sub but didn’t bat in the first Missouri game, and didn’t play on the final two games of the trip. Then he pinch ran on Tuesday at The Citadel.
“Tanner was the most encouraging yesterday from practice,” Holbrook said. “He actually threw for the first time since his injury. We need him to play this weekend and I’m hopeful that his shoulder won’t be as sore today after throwing. I expect him to be more of a significant contributor this weekend than he was last.”
** LF Graham Saiko – Hurt his wrist while diving for a ball in the first Missouri game and hasn’t played in three games since.
“It didn’t look good for him yesterday as far as being available this weekend,” Holbrook said. “I hope he’s had a good 24 hours and he’s healed some, but I don’t see him playing, especially tomorrow night I don’t see it. If he’s gotten better since yesterday, maybe there’s hope toward the end of the weekend, but I don’t right now see him playing tomorrow night.”
** Montgomery – He was outstanding in his first three starts (0.95 ERA, 19 strikeouts, seven walks), but he missed his last two starts and will definitely miss his next two. After that, USC plays Tennessee then Florida.
“Good news on Jordan this week was he had his MRI and the MRI did reveal that his injury has healed and he will resume his throwing program on Monday,” Holbrook said. “Resuming a throwing program and being ready to pitch in a game are two different things. Hopefully that the weekend following Texas A&M (Tennessee), he’ll be ready to pitch in a game in some capacity. I think more realistic is putting him back in the rotation, if we don’t have any hurdles, probably looks like Florida to be more of a sure thing. But who knows. If he’s ready to go against Tennessee, and they say (doctors clear him), we’re going to put him in there.”
** Reserve OF Ahmad Christian, also a cornerback on the football team, hasn’t played all season because of a back injury.
“Ahmad Christian swung the bat for the first time yesterday off a tee in limited capacity and that was good news as well,” Holbrook said. “He’s now going on three weeks without any pain. So I think his return is imminent. That being said, I don’t know if he’ll be on the dress list this weekend or not, just because he hasn’t seen any live pitching or hasn’t gotten any live at-bats. But we’ll see about that.”
USC has some interesting options in middle relief now that Beal is the Friday starter.
Vince Fiori has a 0.00 ERA, four strikeouts and one walk in four appearances (Ball State, Rider, Davidson, Citadel).
Curt Britt is 2.79, four strikeouts and a walk in four appearances (Albany, Ball State, Davidson, Citadel, with his lone start coming against Ball State).
Adam Westmoreland is 1.06, 16 strikeouts and two walks in six appearances (Liberty, Clemson, Ball State, Rider, Missouri and Missouri).
“We had a really, really good setup man (Evan Beal) before Jordan got hurt,” Holbrook said. “When you lose a starting pitcher, especially your No. 1 guy, when you move somebody in that spot and you take him away from the bullpen, it’s going to thin your bullpen out a little bit. I’m not concerned about the depth of our pitching staff. I think that’s been one of the strengths of our team.
“I was very impressed with the way (Vince) Fiori threw (on Tuesday at The Citadel). I’ve been very impressed the last couple outings the way (Curt) Britt has thrown. I think the only reason they haven’t shown what they can do is probably because the coach hasn’t put them in there. We’ve got to get those guys some experience on a big stage in a big game. I would think that would happen this weekend.”
Of those three middle relievers, Westmoreland obviously has the most experience. He is a senior, while Fiori is a redshirt freshman and Britt is a true freshman. Westmoreland is making the most of his final season.
“I think his confidence is better,” Holbrook said. “He was great at Missouri. He makes me feel good about our bullpen depth. If you asked me what’s changed, I don’t really know. I think he’s just become more confident. He’s in better shape than he’s ever been in. He’s had some success. He pitched well in the fall. He pitched well in the spring scrimmages. He believes in himself.
“I think earlier in his career here, his confidence was rattled a tad and he just didn’t quite have the confidence in himself that he needed to have. Now he does. He’s not scared to throw the ball over the plate, and I think he was maybe a little timid his first few years here. But he’s not now. He’s going after guys. That, along with his confidence, has contributed to his success. If we haven’t used him on Friday or Saturday (in a relief role), he certainly would be considered (to start on Sunday).”