When South Carolina opens its baseball season on Friday afternoon at home against Liberty, there will be lots of changes in the Gamecocks’ pitching staff.
Gone is Michael Roth, their Friday starter for the past two seasons. He is replaced by another left-hander, sophomore Jordan Montgomery, who took over a starting spot in early April last year and pitched some huge games in the NCAA tournament.
Gone is Matt Price, one of the most dominant closers in College World Series history. Senior Tyler Webb is stepping in to replace him, at least to begin the season.
With two of three starters back from last season, USC coach Chad Holbrook and pitching coach Jerry Meyers spent preseason practices looking for a Sunday guy.
They believe they found one in fifth-year senior lefty Nolan Belcher, who was a weekend starter as a freshman in 2009, but started just six games in 2010, missed 2011 because of Tommy John surgery and started two midweek games last season, when he made 17 relief appearances, but just one in the NCAA tournament.
So really, Belcher starting isn’t a change, as much as it is a potential return to the best time of his career. And now that he is two years removed from Tommy John, he feels as good as ever.
“I feel better,” he said. “I’m two years out. Another year older. I’m 23 now (will be on March 12), so I’ve seen a lot and been around this program for a while. My arm feels really healthy and ready to go. My arm is bouncing back a lot better, the day after I throw a bullpen or if I throw live. It bounces back a lot sooner and I feel stronger the next day than I did last year.”
He felt physically comfortable last season, but had to overcome mental hurdles.
“Once the weather started changing and it started to warm up, it helped a lot,” he said. “But early in the season, (the arm) wasn’t bouncing back the same. If I threw live, it would be sore for about three days, but now, it’s a lot better.
“I felt physically fine, but the first time coming back throwing after that surgery, it’s very difficult. You kind of have that thing in the back of your mind: Am I completely healthy? How’s it going to feel? You have that memory of when you got hurt. So it’s tough mentally, but I felt fine at the end of last year.”
Now, he said, his elbow “feels the best it’s ever felt, so I’m excited to get things going.”
But since he is the team’s elder statesmen, he has taken some ribbing from teammates.
“They kid around with me and call me an old geezer and coach and stuff,” he said.
So does he feel a lot older than the freshmen?
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “Some of these kids are 18 years old and I’m 23, so that’s five years. I’ve seen a lot of baseball here and they’re kind of all new to it.”
As he takes on more of a leadership role now, he said, “I’m kind of a quiet guy, but I know what needs to be done in the locker room and on the field and in the weight room. I feel like I’ve kind of taken on that role as a leader, but we have a lot of leaders up there. Last year, we had a lot of leaders, not just Adam (Matthews) and Price and Roth.”
One freshman who has impressed him is second baseman Max Schrock, who will likely start the season hitting in the three hole.
“If you make a mistake, he crushes it,” Belcher said. “I’ve pitched to him a few times. He makes adjustments real quick. Most times, when a freshman comes in, they can hit pretty well, but they don’t make adjustments pitch to pitch. So let’s say I throw a curveball and he swings and misses. Normal freshmen kind of don’t make an adjustment to the next pitch, but he makes adjustments real quick, with what to expect and how to hit it.”
But Belcher’s comeback from Tommy John has also brought admiration from teammates.
“You’ve got to give him mad props,” said pitcher Colby Holmes, a starter last season who will begin this year as the Saturday guy. “In one of his prime years, his junior season, he went out with Tommy John. That’s a year that you want to show out for the scouts. Him having that surgery, it puts a lot of people in the dumps when they find out that bad news. But he didn’t give up. He kept battling. He did rehab, working out hard, and you see what it’s got him.”
The biggest difference Holmes sees in Belcher?
“Earlier on in the fall, you could tell he was timid about throwing his curveball because he didn’t necessarily know how it was going to feel coming out,” Holmes said. “Now, I feel like he’s back to his normal self. His curveball is a really good pitch. His curveball and changeup are two of his better pitches.”
Like Belcher, Holmes isn’t green. He is a senior now.
“He’s been here a year longer than me,” said Holmes. “And he always brings up the (exaggerated) statement: ‘I’ve been here since ’04.’ It’s just funny how he’s been here so long.”
Meyers has seen a more confident Belcher since the fall.
“Confidence is kind of bred from having some success and being able to execute like you’re trying to,” Meyers said. “I think last year, you’re cleared at 12 months after the Tommy John surgery, and it was right around 12 months, so he was cleared and ready to go. But the next six months is usually where you get that last 10, 20 percent of your feel, your command, and when you start getting that back to the point where you know and trust where the pitch is going, then you get more confident. That’s I think what’s happened a little bit with him.
“He’s a confident guy. When he didn’t quite have his feel, that took a little bit away from his confidence. Not that he was frustrated, but he just didn’t quite have that edge that you have when you’re executing your pitches. He still did a really good job for us in the times that he was in there for us last year.”
Belcher had a 2.12 ERA last season, compared to 2.43 in 2010 and 5.33 in 2009.
As for Belcher getting his curveball back, Meyers said, “It’s a feel pitch, but so is locating your fastball and your other pitches. He kind of came in relief last year and used a little bit more of his slider, cutter, which is a little easier to locate (than the curve). I think probably not being at 100 percent in terms of his feel probably affected his curveball as much as any other pitch last year.”
A lot of people will wonder if Belcher is back to the guy he was in 2009. Not that he was a star then, but he had some very good outings, including a one-run complete game at Mississippi.
“I think he’s better (than he was in 2009) because he’s more experienced, he’s mature, he’s been through the ringer a little bit and he’s had to work really hard,” Meyers said. “As tough of a kid as he was when he probably came in as a freshman, he’s been through all that and I think that’s going to make him even better. I guess it remains to be seen.
“We feel like he can (remain as the Sunday starter), but at the same time, he’s a versatile guy. We might need to have him in some other kind of role, depending on what some other guys do. We feel like if we need to do it, Nolan can play anywhere for us right now. We’re going to kick it off with him being that Sunday guy.
“(Belcher staying there) is not going to depend on whether he throws well or not. It’s going to probably depend more on if we’re going to need him somewhere else at a point in the game to shore things up, whether it be the middle or a key reliever to keep us in games or help out at the end.”
Meyers wants to see what USC’s others middle relievers do before he determines where he needs Belcher.
“Those are some factors that are going to play out – what (Forrest) Koumas does, what (Jack) Wynkoop does, what (Joel) Seddon does,” Meyers said. “If one of those guys plugs in and we feel like we need to move Belch out (of the starting rotation) because we need him in another spot in the game, those are things that are kind of rolling around in my head right now. At the same time, too, if everybody does their job, we could stay with the same rotation.”
Some other notes on USC’s pitchers as the opener approaches …
** The biggest difference for Holmes this year?
“My changeup has grown to be one of my better pitches,” Holmes said. “That’s pretty much the only thing that’s changed from last year.”
Said Meyers: “It’s an equalizing pitch that he can locate pretty well. It has some movement, but now he can control it a little bit better. It becomes, instead of a late-in-the-count kind of pitch where you try to get someone to chase with two strikes, he can do a little better job with it now even in the count. Or even behind in the count, he can throw that pitch, which is a huge difference.
“(Progress with Holmes’ changeup) has always been kind of what we talked about with him from the beginning. But it takes a while to breed that confidence in throwing a pitch that has that kind of movement, and making the slight adjustment that you need to make to be able to throw it behind and even in the count. And that’s the difference.”
** Webb isn’t sweating having to replace Price as USC’s closer.
“There’s always pressure in that role,” Webb said. “Definitely Matt was a great closer. I’m not trying to match him by any means. We have different throwing styles. If I went head to head with Matt, I don’t really like my chances as the closer. But I’m just going to try to do my best.”
Webb is clearly at his best out of the bullpen. Why?
“The buildup every week isn’t there,” he said. “As a starter, you’re waiting all week to get your one shot, then you’re here like four hours before (the game) and you’re just sitting around and no one is there with you. In the pen, you’re just down there and you’re hanging out with the guys, the phone rings, your number is called and you just go out there and throw.
“You don’t have a lot of time to think about the situation or get wrapped up in ‘oh, this is a big spot’ or anything like that. You just go out there and throw as well as you can. Good or bad, you know you’re going to get another shot in the next couple days. All you really worry about is recovering and being ready to go next time.
“You sort of know you’re going in in those (high-pressure late game) spots, but at the same time, there’s always that chance that someone else will be called. Down there, you don’t have all the time to worry about ‘I hope I throw good today’ or anything like that. You’re just down there, like, ‘I need to get loose.’ That’s all you’re really worrying about. By that time, the phone rings and you’re in the game. There isn’t as much time to think about what’s going on. For some reason, I guess I just adapted to the pen better.”
USC might need Webb to go twice in a weekend, and he thinks he can do it.
“I feel confident in my ability to bounce back,” he said. “I did it a couple times last year, and definitely with another year of experience and kind of knowing what I need to do physically to get back ready to throw again in the same weekend, I’m pretty confident (that) if the pitch count is within reason, it shouldn’t be a problem for me to bounce back.”
As for what makes him effective, Webb said, “I’ve talked to a couple guys on the team and they said I hide the ball. I couldn’t really say if I do or not. I’m the one throwing it.”
Meyers tried to simulate Webb’s role as a closer throughout fall and preseason practices.
“I think he knows how to approach it,” Meyers said. “We try to simulate that. He kind of had that mentality as he went through scrimmages in the fall and here in the preseason. We threw him on Fridays and Sundays the last couple weeks and tried to get him to approach it like when he’s done, the game’s done. I think he has a feel for it. It’s going to feel different when he’s on the road and he’s going to have to adjust to it, and I think he will. We’re confident in him.”
For the past three seasons, Webb has come up big in the College World Series. He had great overall numbers last season – 1.56 ERA, 58 strikeouts and 18 walks.
“That’s why he’s at the top of the conversation (to close), is because he pitched his best baseball in postseason last year and that’s the toughest time to have any inconsistencies and he was at his best,” Meyers said. “That was an indicator to us that we need to take a stronger look at him as he came back, which we’re very fortunate that he did. Because he probably could have signed and made it be known that he wanted to sign in certain X number of round, and he probably would have not even been here. He’s been in some situations. He’s pitched in Omaha.
“He has a fastball that jumps a little bit. At the end of the year last year, his velocity picked up. He’s always around 90 and has been as high as 94. He can pitch at 87, 88 at times. He’s a rhythm guy so sometimes it doesn’t come out with his best velocity all the time, but it’s still good velocity. It’s a situation where he can pitch with his fastball. He’s got some deception to it. He kind of hides it a little bit. He has a plus changeup and a slider that’s a useable secondary pitch for him.”
** Montgomery seems excited about the physical and mentality changes he has made.
“I’ve kind of grown into my body a little bit more,” he said. “Not as goofy anymore. I’m just more confident on the mound a lot. I guess my presence is more, just kind of knowing that I can do it and just knowing when to throw it has hard as I can, when to stay back and when to throw it in the dirt. I’m more prepared now. There’s always nervousness before every game, so I feel that. But I’m more comfortable now, so it goes away sooner.
“After last year and all the pressure that was on me in those games, I just kind of went out there and pitched. I don’t worry about the pressure. I just try to pitch my best.”
Montgomery got stronger, which smoothed out his mechanics, added some late movement to his pitches and allowed him to not throw as hard late in games.
“He absolutely needed to get stronger, just like all the young guys coming in,” Meyers said. “He has gotten stronger. He works really hard in the weight room. He sometimes does more than what we’re asking (him) to do and we have to reel him back in a little bit, just because he does drive himself in the weight room with conditioning. He’s put himself in a category where he’s made a little bit of a jump, it appears. Now he has to go out there and do it for real. He’s pitched on a big stage and handled himself well, so we’re going to need that to translate.”
** While freshman Jack Wynkoop won’t be the Sunday starter to begin the season, the coaches are still high on him.
“He’s always been a strike-thrower,” Meyers said. “When he arrived here, that’s what he did – he threw strikes and changed speeds and he’s got some movement. He’s got that build (6-5, 185 pounds) and all that. So it remains to be seen where he’s going to plug in and how well he’ll do things, but he seems to have good presence out there right now at this point, too.
“If (Wynkoop) doesn’t go Sunday, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a valuable guy. We might see that a role out of the pen is what we need out of him, because he could do that, I think.”
** Look for Joel Seddon to perhaps make a jump as a middle reliever this season after making just nine appearances and three starts last season as a freshman. He threw 16 1/3 innings. Seddon had a 2.76 ERA, with 13 strikeouts and six walks.
“He’s better now,” Meyers said. “He’s got a year under his belt. The opportunities he had, he handled himself well last year when he got them, a couple spot starts and a couple times out of the pen. He didn’t set the world on fire, but he handled himself well. A year older, a little more consistent, throwing more strikes. His stuff has always been good, but it’s maybe a tad better now. He didn’t have a ton of innings, but I like him right now.”