After Tuesday night’s 10-0 win over Ball State – another positive development in his first season as South Carolina’s baseball coach – Chad Holbrook delivered his least-welcome news of the season so far.
Holbrook told the assembled media at Carolina Stadium that his No. 1 starter, sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery, is out for at least the next two weeks because of an injury to his pitching arm.
Through three starts – against Liberty, Albany and Clemson – Montgomery is 3-0 with a 0.95 earned-run average, with 13 hits and seven walks allowed in 19 innings, compared to 19 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .188 against him.
In short, he has looked exactly like what USC wanted him to be this season – an ace. His last start was the best of his career – Friday’s 6-0 win at Clemson, in which he threw an eight-inning three-hitter with nine strikeouts and two walks. He threw 110 pitches.
But even before that start, everything was not entirely right with Montgomery’s left arm, as Holbrook explained Tuesday …
“Jordan Montgomery is going to be shut down for two weeks or so,” Holbrook said. “He will not pitch this weekend (at home against Rider). He probably won’t go on the trip to Missouri. He’s been having some discomfort over the last two to three weeks in his pitching arm, and he was diagnosed (Tuesday), after an MRI and an X-ray, with a lower distal stress reaction. Basically, it’s not a stress fracture. There’s no broken bones. It’s a stress reaction, kind of at the distal part of his humerus (near the elbow). Distal means lower part, according to (USC’s trainer).
“Disappointing, but if it had to happen, this is as good a time (as any) for it to happen. We’ll re-evaluate Jordan in two weeks and see when we can get him back. He hopes to be back for Arkansas (March 22-24 at home, the weekend after Missouri). I’m not optimistic that it’ll be that weekend. I think we’re looking maybe the third weekend of SEC play (March 28-30 at home against Texas A&M).
“But we’ll see. Kids heal quickly. It was something that’s been bothering him for two to three weeks. We thought it was just some muscle there. It’s funny (because) when he pitched against Clemson he felt great, and when he throws the ball he feels great. It’s kind of during his recovery (from a start) that he has some discomfort. So we got him checked out (Tuesday) and that was the news that we received.”
Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and the director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, offered some thoughts today on stress reactions and how they different from stress fractures.
Stress reactions are a “pre-cursor” to stress fractures, he said. If you keep trying to throw through a stress reaction, it can turn into a stress fracture of the bone.
Adult pitchers like Montgomery typically experience soft tissue (ligament, tendon) problems in their elbows rather than stress reactions, which happen more commonly in younger pitchers, whose bones are still forming.
“It’s just odd that an adult would have a stress reaction of bone in the elbow,” Geier said.
But it’s nothing to be alarmed about, since USC’s medical staff appears to have caught it early.
“If you shut somebody down for a week or two weeks, the bone heals and they’ll be fine,” Geier said. “It’s an overuse injury and it’s early in the season, so I don’t know that I’d read too much into that. Usually it’s not a sign of underlying problems.”
That would be the same treatment for a stress fracture – shut the pitcher down – except with a stress fracture “it would be a lot longer” of a shutdown, Geier said.
How can doctors tell the difference between a stress reaction and a stress fracture on an MRI? Obviously, a stress reaction is a less serious version of a stress fracture, rather than an entirely different injury, but how do doctors differentiate on an MRI?
“A stress reaction is typically a localized area of swelling within a bone (in the soft interior part of the bone), and it doesn’t extend out to the outer part of the bone (the harder cortex area),” Geier said. “There’s no actual fracture line. You’re catching it early, before it becomes a microscopic crack. The bone is absorbing the stress. That’s why you see the swelling on the MRI. They’re both very localized. (But with a stress reaction), it hasn’t gotten to the point where there’s actually been failure of the structural of the component of the bone. It’s inside the bone. It hasn’t gotten so bad that there are microscopic cracks in the structural component of the bone.
“It’s not so much of a difference (between a reaction and a fracture). It’s just a difference in grade rather than a different diagnosis. It takes a lot longer to get over a stress fracture. Usually stress reactions, you can back somebody off a week or two then they’re OK. You back them off of whatever that stress is and it goes on to heal.”
Though both injuries are overuse injuries, Geier emphasized that there’s no reason for serious concern at this point, because USC didn’t mention anything about Montgomery’s ulnar collateral ligament – the one in the elbow that requires Tommy John surgery.
“As long as there’s nothing else that they’re not saying (that was) on the MRI, it shouldn’t be a real big deal,” Geier said. “They caught it early and they’ll just back him off. As soon as his elbow starts feeling better, they’ll probably start a long toss program.”
Holbrook indicated that senior righty Colby Holmes and fifth-year senior lefty Nolan Belcher will move up a spot in the weekend rotation now that Montgomery is out. Holmes has been the Saturday guy, Belcher the Sunday guy.
Through three starts each, Belcher has been better. Holmes has a 3.71 ERA with 11 hits, 10 strikeouts, four walks and a .186 opposing batting average. Belcher has a 2.18 ERA with 15 hits, 23 strikeouts, one walk and a .192 opposing batting average.
Belcher is coming off Sunday’s complete game shutout of Clemson, in which he allowed three hits, struck out seven and walked nobody. Considering the stage, it was the best game of his career, just as Friday was the best game of Montgomery’s career.
When asked about how he will fill Montgomery’s spot in the rotation, Holbrook said, “I talked to (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers, and obviously Colby and Nolan, that won’t change. We’ll look at (Jack) Wynkoop. Heck, Adam Westmoreland has thrown very well. We’ll look at a number of guys. Curt Britt is chomping at the bit, Evan Beal. We could pull a guy out of the bullpen. Who knows? We’ll be fine. Hopefully, one of these guys will step up in Jordan’s absence, and when Jordan gets back, we’ll be even better.”
Any concern that Montgomery’s injury could linger?
“Well, it’s always a concern, but we got good news (Tuesday), honestly,” Holbrook said. “The initial diagnosis is we were concerned it was a stress fracture. It wasn’t. We were looking at something of six to eight weeks there for a couple hours. But we got good news and that’s the way we’re taking it. I’ll have an update in two weeks after we re-evaluate him to see if the healing is taking place like we think it will.”
Let’s look at the starting rotation options Holbrook mentioned …
** Jack Wynkoop – The freshman lefty has been outstanding so far, albeit against three teams that aren’t of SEC caliber. Through three appearances (two starts), he is 2-0 with 11 1/3 innings pitched, seven hits, one run, no earned runs, one walk and seven strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .179 against him.
After facing one batter (four pitches) on opening weekend against Liberty, Wynkoop was turned loose for back-to-back midweek starts against Furman and Ball State (Tuesday’s game). He had a strong line against Furman: 5 1/3 innings, five hits, no runs, no walks, two strikeouts. He had a stronger line against Ball State: six innings, two hits, no runs, no walks, five strikeouts.
Holbrook raved about him after both starts and said he thinks USC’s fans are going to enjoy watching Wynkoop pitch in the future. But with Montgomery out, Wynkoop’s future could be now, as Holbrook might call on him to start during USC’s SEC opening weekend at Missouri.
Whoever Holbrook plugs in is helped by the fact that USC has another ho-hum opponent, Rider, before the SEC opener. That could potentially help ease the new guy in. Missouri is not ranked in the Baseball America poll, but Arkansas is No. 16 – 10 spots behind USC – so that will be a tough test, if Montgomery isn’t ready to return for that home series against the Razorbacks.
Of course, Wynkoop already pitched Tuesday, so would he be ready to throw Sunday on four days of rest? Or might Holbrook go with someone else this weekend and re-evaluate the Missouri rotation early next week?
** Adam Westmoreland – The fifth-year senior lefty was Mr. Baseball in the state of South Carolina in 2008, but hasn’t done much at USC. After his first season, 2009, he missed the entire next year because of Tommy John surgery. Entering this season, he had a 4.46 career ERA with 19 starts, 54 walks and 51 strikeouts. Last season, his ERA was 2.86 and he pitched in just seven games, with four starts.
He has two relief appearances this season and has allowed no earned runs and five hits in 6 2/3 innings while striking out nine and walking nobody. He was especially strong in Saturday’s loss to Clemson (4 1/3 innings, three hits, seven strikeouts, no walks), and Holbrook said after that game that Westmoreland might have earned himself the opportunity to pitch in games when USC is trying to protect a lead, rather than chasing, as it was Saturday.
** Evan Beal – The sophomore righty has a ton of talent and was an eighth-round pick coming out of high school. Like Westmoreland, he has two relief appearances this season and has allowed three hits and no runs in 3 2/3 innings while striking out five and walking nobody.
He has shown signs of progress from last season, when he had a 3.81 ERA in 28 relief appearances and one start. But partly because USC’s starting pitching was so strong in the Clemson series, and the Gamecocks didn’t need their bullpen that much, Beal didn’t get a chance to throw in the series and, thus, has yet to face a tough opponent this season.
With Wynkoop having already started this week, perhaps Beal is the best, rested option for this weekend against Rider.
** Curt Britt – The freshman righty is almost certainly out of the mix to start this weekend because Holbrook will start him tonight against Ball State – his first career start. In one four-inning relief appearance so far, against Albany, Britt allowed two hits and a run while striking out three and walking nobody.
But if Britt shows Holbrook and Meyers something tonight against Ball State, might they consider going with him for Missouri? He doesn’t have the body of work so far that Wynkoop has, but maybe the coaches see something tonight. At this point, Britt is the biggest wildcard to get Montgomery’s start against Missouri.
After tonight, Holbrook will have seen starts from Wynkoop (two) and Britt (one). But he won’t have seen Westmoreland or Beal start, so maybe he opts for one of those guys on Sunday against Rider. Then he will be able to compare starting performances next week as he formulates his Missouri rotation.