Before the season, Nolan Belcher expressed confidence that he was back to his old self, and that his surgically repaired left elbow would be able to hold up under the strain of being a weekend starter again. Belcher said he felt this way because his arm was bouncing back quicker after he pitched than it did last season, his first after Tommy John surgery.
And sure enough, while taking on a heavy workload this season, Belcher has held up just fine, as you can read about in today’s print edition story. He has thrown a remarkable number of innings – 74 in 10 starts, compared to 29 2/3 in each of the past two seasons, when he started just eight total times out of 20 appearances.
He was not ineffective the past two seasons, when he had 2.43 and 2.12 earned-run averages, but he hadn’t taxed his arm like he did in 2009, when, as a freshman, he threw 82 2/3 innings as a weekend starter, then hit a wall and saw his ERA balloon to 5.33 by season’s end.
Four years later, as a fifth-year senior, Belcher is having the best season of his career – 1.70 ERA, 61 strikeouts, five walks. He is, simply put, one of the best stories in college baseball this year. Perhaps most encouraging for Belcher, he has charged through the innings barrier that proved challenging during his freshman season.
That year, Belcher’s first nine appearances included six starts, four against SEC competition. In those nine appearances, Belcher had a 3.73 ERA in 41 innings. His last of those nine appearances was a one-run complete game at Mississippi, with eight strikeouts and three walks.
Then, in his final seven appearances, all starts against SEC teams or in the NCAA tournament, Belcher fell apart. He threw 41 2/3 innings and had a 6.91 ERA. He capped the miserable run by allowing eight runs in 6 1/3 innings at East Carolina in the NCAA tournament Regional.
This season, Belcher feels strong, even as he plows past the innings milestones that troubled him as a freshman.
“I feel good,” he said. “I remember my freshman year, that was kind of a problem, when I hit the 60, 70 inning mark. I felt kind of like I was getting a little tired. Maybe that’s because I was younger and just wasn’t used to this long of a season. This year, when we hit the halfway point, we sat down with (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers and Billy (Anderson), our strength coach, and changed my lifting a little bit and kind of tapered off so I wasn’t beating myself in between starts and just trying to do too much. I’ll get after it pretty hard in the weight room. We’ve tapered off and I think that’s helping a lot.
“I can tell just late in the game that I feel good. I feel strong and I’m not running out of gas when they take me out. I feel fine. It’s just that I’m at a pitch limit. That’s why they take me out. You don’t want to throw more than 120-ish. Pitching on Friday, you’ve got to be able to go deep in the game. You don’t want to blow your bullpen in the first game, so I’ve got to try to stay in the game as long as possible.”
Belcher knew when he had Tommy John surgery in 2011 that a lot of guys have recovered from operation and returned better than ever. Much advancement has been made in the surgery since 1974, when Dr. Frank Jobe first performed it on Major League pitcher Tommy John, whose career began in 1963 and continued after the surgery until 1989.
“I’ve seen it go both ways,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said of the surgery. “But I have seen guys come back and be even better. Drake Thomason is still struggling coming back from it. I’ve talked to Brainard (Cooper, USC’s trainer) about this a number of times: Why do you think kids come back from Tommy John and throw actually harder? I don’t think you can say that’s the norm. I think it happens some, and I don’t know if I can put a finger on it. The way that doctors and arm care folks are taking care of these guys now is so much more advanced than it was when I first got into coaching.
“Whereas a lot of times back in the 80s, a Tommy John surgery would be maybe a death sentence for a pitcher, now it’s an opportunity to get better almost. The kids now are seeing it that way. Organizations in the Major Leagues and big leagues are not putting too much worry in regard to the ability to bounce back from a Tommy John surgery as well. Any time you get cut on, there’s no guarantee. The fact that Nolan has had Tommy John and thrown well and Tyler (Webb, USC’s closer) has had it and has thrown well, for every couple guys that are actually throwing better than they were before, there are a couple guys still struggling to get back. It’s very uncertain.”
Said Belcher: “I was pretty confident that I would be able to come back. I just knew that it would be a long process and difficult. I was confident knowing that if I took care of business and did the rehab that I would be able to come back. I wasn’t sure that I would have success like this, but I knew I would be healthy enough to actually go out there and throw and maybe get some opportunities my senior year (2012) and this fifth year (2013).”
During his rehab, he said relievers Adam Westmoreland Webb, both of whom had Tommy John surgery, “would check up on me and kind of encourage me. My family helped me a lot and people from back home would send me emails and messages and it was very encouraging.”
Coming into this season, Belcher said, “I was confident. I had a good fall. I think what really made me feel confident was in the fall, I only walked one guy in 14 innings. I remember telling myself my control is better and I feel like I’m throwing the ball with conviction and I have a better idea of where it’s going to go. I took that into the spring and had a good preseason and just kind of built on that confidence.
“We kid around (in the clubhouse) about it, like: ‘Would you have ever thought you’d be pitching on Fridays?’ And I can’t say that I honestly would have. We’re not oblivious to it. It’s kind of strange.”
Said Holbrook: “I don’t think it’s that much different as far as velocity (for Belcher after the surgery, compared to before). His command is much greater and much better. The ability to throw his breaking ball in there early in the count. He throws his changeup in fastball counts. That’s what’s made him so effective, his command. That’s made a huge difference for him.”
USC catcher Grayson Greiner agreed.
“He’s always been able to spot up all his pitches, but this year he seems to be doing it with a little bit more conviction, going inside on people with his fastball,” Greiner said. “I’ve heard stories about how dominant he was early in his time here, before the injury, with his fastball. I’m kind of starting to see that now, with his conviction going inside on people with his fastball and spotting that changeup.”