The story in Friday’s print edition will focus on Colby Holmes. He began the year as South Carolina’s No. 2 starter, but struggled and is now a reliever.
That’s partly because of those struggles, partly because closer Tyler Webb is now hurt (though he could pitch this weekend against Kentucky), and partly because USC’s only effective middle reliever has been Adam Westmoreland.
Even if USC sticks with Jack Wynkoop as a starter the rest of the way, to accompany Nolan Belcher and Jordan Montgomery, the Gamecocks will still need productivity from Holmes, especially since Evan Beal and Forrest Koumas have been so bad – a 5.33 and 7.80 ERA. USC can’t get by with just Webb and Westmoreland as effective relievers.
USC coach Chad Holbrook expected his team to hit much better this season, and so far the Gamecocks are meeting those expectations. Last year’s team hit .265, slugged .387, had 42 home runs and scored 5.1 runs per game. This year’s team is hitting .287, slugging .430, has 35 homers and is scoring 6.3 runs per game.
But USC’s pitching isn’t as good, right now, as it was last season. USC’s team ERA is up from 2.97 to 3.20. Its opponents’ batting average has increased from .221 to .243.
This has been a busy year for pitching coach Jerry Meyers, who has had to deal with an injury to ace Jordan Montgomery, in addition to Webb’s aching elbow, and the spotty performances of Holmes, Beal and Koumas, all of whom were expected to be reliable contributors.
Meyers had quite a few comments Thursday about the state of his pitching staff, and here they are …
** Holbrook thought Sunday that Webb might be done for the season, but as it turned out, Webb’s MRI was clean.
“We didn’t have any medical information to go on at that point,” Meyers said. “This was a worrisome spot (in his arm). You just never know whether it’s muscular or whether it’s something (with a) ligament in there. That’s what we had to go check out Monday. I guess the good news on the whole thing was that it was a clean MRI for someone that had Tommy John in high school. It’s about as clean as what you’d expected for someone that had surgery almost five years ago now.”
** Leaving the ball up has been Holmes’ biggest issue.
“It was three starts in a row where he lost his command to get the ball down,” Meyers said. “He doesn’t have an unbearable amount of walks per the innings he’s thrown up to this point (13 walks in 41 innings). It’s just been command, mainly of his fastball. Everything works off of that. He historically has established his fastball better than what he had through that spurt. When you’re not having success, it leads to a little bit of not being as confident, not trusting what you’re doing quite as much. It’s been a little bit back and forth, obviously, but we’re still looking for him to be a huge contributor.”
** Westmoreland has been remarkable this season – 1.74 ERA, 40 strikeouts, six walks. He has never been this good in his entire career.
“He’s repeating his delivery more consistently,” Meyers said. “He has some very short spurts where he pulls off the ball, which he did a lot more last year than he does this year. He just pulls off. He goes toward third base with his lead arm (when following through) and ends up having kind of a spinning finish. He’s a lot more direct to the plate (this year). It’s something that he’s been working on for a long period of time. He’s comfortable with it, as far as being quicker to the plate and getting that down and making sure that his arm is on time. He’s just better at it this year. There’s not one mechanical thing that he’s worked on.
“His delivery always had a decent basis of being sound. It was just about repeating it better. Maybe his arm feels like it has a little more life in it, and that gives him a little more confidence. Having some better results gets him more confidence. I’m not going to kid you and tell you I know the exact answers to that, but it’s a confidence thing and it’s confidence built off being able to execute his pitches more consistently. It’s just two-fold. It’s not just mechanical.”
** Beal has excellent stuff, but he has lacked control too often (14 walks in 25 1/3 innings) and has fallen behind in counts, which has led to his inconsistencies.
“The book on him is just establishing that fastball,” Meyers said. “Some guys establish that fastball better than others. Some guys have really good stuff, but you can have good stuff and you can throw a certain amount of strikes, but there’s guys that have true command that can really establish that fastball first. That’s not something that he’s been able to do on a consistent basis. Everybody talks about the stuff being remarkable and there’s very good stuff there. There’s no doubt about that.
“But establishing that fastball and being able to get ahead of hitters has been a deal where when it’s sporadic, it’s hard to get to put-away pitches when you can’t get in put-away counts. It doesn’t mean that he can’t get there. It’s not that he hasn’t thrown strikes. He’s had some outings where he was a little bit more locked in. It becomes mental and mechanical. You can’t always put a finger on it. It’s about trying to repeat (a delivery) and establish that fastball first. He was doing a little bit better through a stretch (of outings) than he is right now.”
** One of the most intriguing stories entering the weekend is whether sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake, a successful high school pitcher, will pitch for the first time in his career. It’s definitely an option, according to Meyers.
“I think he’s always been in a position where he potentially could have helped us,” Meyers said. “It was whether or not you wanted your shortstop (have to handle) the difficulty of being able to do that and also having a plus defender to be able to put in (at short). DC Arendas can go in there and play defense with anybody. That opens some doors for us, so if (Pankake) does get in there (as a pitcher), we don’t feel like we have any problem or any issue with putting another really good defender out there. That plays into it.
“He was drafted as a pitcher (in the 42nd round) and if he would have let everybody know that he wanted to be drafted as a pitcher, he probably would have been drafted much higher as a pitcher out of high school. But he’s a two-way (player) and his intention was to come to school and be a position player, and rightly so. It was probably the way he should have approached that. Pitching was going to possibly be put on the back burner (at USC), but not totally forgotten about.”
So can Pankake throw this weekend?
“He can. He’s thrown enough in the pen. His arm was in shape. Now, he’s in a little bit better shape in terms of throwing down to the catcher and feeling that delivery. He’s done enough. His stuff is ready to help us right now. Whether or not we plug him in, that will remain to be seen.
“He can probably throw 90 when he rolls out of bed. He’s one of those guys whose arm might be that good. It might be around 92, 93 range at times, but that’s not the biggest thing. Just locating his fastball and he has a decent slider. If he has his velo in that range, that’ll probably be something that we can use in terms of an impact situation if need be.”