South Carolina played its last home game on Saturday until April 19, when Kentucky comes to town for what could be a very big series. Between now and then, the Gamecocks travel to Tennessee and Florida. And now, they will do so on the heels of a sweep over Texas A&M, after USC was swept at home by Arkansas last weekend, which dropped it to 2-4 in the SEC.
USC is now 22-6 and 5-4 in the SEC at the midpoint of its season. First-year coach Chad Holbrook had plenty of reasons to feel good after this sweep, because he could soon get his ace, Jordan Montgomery, back from a bone stress reaction in his elbow that sidelined him for four series.
“Hopefully Jordan will have a good bullpen on Monday and be ready to pitch at Tennessee,” Holbrook said. “Fingers are crossed. If he does pitch, it probably will not be until Sunday. But we’re not going to rush him back. If there’s any discomfort, if there’s any soreness, we’ll hold him back one more weekend. I don’t know what that does to the rotation as we sit here right now. But I know when Jordan is ready to go, we’re going to pop him in there.”
What would Montgomery’s role be if he returns at Tennessee?
“My first thought is start because that’s what he’s used to doing, but it could be a two-inning stint,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to let some things unfold this week in regard to that, who we use Tuesday and Wednesday (against Charleston Southern and Furman). What we do with Colby (Holmes) in the middle of the week is going to determine some of that. But (Montgomery’s) bullpen (Friday) was very, very encouraging and the way he felt today was also encouraging. We’ll throw him again on Monday and hopefully he’ll be ready to go.”
USC knows what it is getting from Montgomery when he is 100 percent. Nolan Belcher has emerged as USC’s No. 2 starter, after beginning the season in the No. 3 spot. He currently has 51 strikeouts and one walk on the season (the best strikeout-to-walk ratio by far in the country), to go with a 1.57 ERA. In his past five starts, he has thrown nine innings (118 pitches), seven innings (103), 8 1/3 innings (120), 7 1/3 innings (116) and 8 1/3 innings (106) on Friday.
If Montgomery returns well, what will USC do with the No. 3 spot? Freshman Jack Wynkoop filled that role again Saturday, and he wasn’t great. He allowed four hits and one earned run in three innings, but Holbrook wasn’t upset by the performance.
The other options at this point for the third spot are Holmes, Evan Beal and Adam Westmoreland.
Holmes had a strong start last week at College of Charleston after sputtering in his previous three starts. He began the season as the No. 2 starter. Wynkoop has taken his spot for the past two series. Beal became the Friday guy after Montgomery was sidelined, but Beal has struggled in his past two starts. Westmoreland had 19 career starts entering this, his senior season. But he has been a valuable middle reliever, after doing precious little before this season.
“Would we hesitate to start (Westmoreland)?” Holbrook said. “No. But he’s been so good (in relief). That’s one of the things I’m most proud of this year, the performance of Adam Westmoreland, because he deserved something good to happen to him with what he’s been through (Tommy John surgery in 2010). Boy, he’s been special. (Pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers might argue, but I have no problem starting Adam Westmoreland in a game.
“That being said, he helped us win two games this weekend. We’ll have to keep that in the thoughts as well. If Jordan comes back, we’ve got a lot of options to consider. We can put Beal back in the bullpen. We can keep Colby in the bullpen. We can move Wynkoop to the bullpen. We’ve got a lot of questions to answer this week as this unfolds. But it’s a good problem to have.”
Beal was the setup man before Montgomery’s injury. Holmes had made just 10 relief appearances, compared to 35 starts, entering this year. Wynkoop has five starts this season and two relief appearances.
Because the Texas A&M series went from Thursday to Saturday, Belcher pitched Friday, so he could conceivably pitch on Friday at Tennessee. That leaves the Saturday spot and, potentially, some or all of the Sunday spot – if Holbrook decides Montgomery can only go a couple innings, as he works his way back.
At this point, Holbrook isn’t really sure of much regarding the rotation for Tennessee, but he does plan to use Holmes on Tuesday against Charleston Southern – a week after his strong performance against College of Charleston. That much Holbrook knows right now.
“I think we can use him Tuesday and still use him in some capacity over the weekend,” Holbrook said. “It just depends on how much we use him on Tuesday. But we need to get him some work. He’s got some confidence going, get him back out there, keep letting him feel good about himself, keep giving him the ball, because Colby is very important to us. I would think he’ll throw in some capacity on Tuesday.”
Don’t be surprised if you see Wynkoop throw in a midweek game as well.
“I don’t think he was as sharp as he usually is (on Saturday), but a freshman trying to pitch in this league is not an easy task,” Holbrook said. “He’s got a bright future here. I went into the game thinking three innings. I wasn’t asking for five or six from him. I just wanted him to keep it close, manage the game a little bit. He did fine. He’s usually got a lot better command that he had today. I don’t know if he was trying to throw a little bit too hard. His command is usually his strong suit. Today, that wasn’t the case. But he only threw 53 pitches, so he might factor in in some capacity in the middle of this week, too.
“The good thing about it is we get an extra day (of rest because of the Thursday-Saturday series against Texas A&M). We’ve got some fresh arms down there. We didn’t use Curt Britt (against Texas A&M). We didn’t use Vince Fiori over the weekend. We didn’t use Colby Holmes. (Joel) Seddon and (Forrest) Koumas are fresh and will be ready to help us. We’ve got some guys down there that can help us on Tuesday and Wednesday.”
So there are still a bunch of questions to be answered before Holbrook determines what role, if any, Montgomery will have next weekend and how the rotation will shape up beyond Belcher.
Some other notes as USC finished off a sweep of Texas A&M …
** Holbrook was happy with how his team remained steady after the Arkansas sweep.
“What a difference six days makes, I guess,” he said. “Our kids didn’t get too down after the week last weekend. If you’d have asked me before the year, ‘After 28, you’d be sitting 22-6. Would you sign up for it?’ I wouldn’t think twice. We still have a lot of work to do.”
** One guy who is doing serious work this season is LB Dantzler, who has nine homers, 32 RBI, a .357 batting average and a 1.178 OPS (on base plus slugging) at the midpoint of the season. Last season’s OPS leader, Christian Walker, had a .975. Dantzler had two homers on Saturday and likely will become the first USC player to hit more than 13 homers in a season since 2009.
“He’s obviously been the threat in the middle our lineup that we need,” Holbrook said. “I still get on him all the time about his strikeouts (a team-high 21) because I don’t think he should strike out hardly at all. I think he’s that gifted of a hitter. But we want him to be aggressive. This is a park that’s made for left-handed hitters with some pop. The wind usually pushes the ball to right field. That being said, those were two big swings of the bat today. The wind might have helped push that second one. It didn’t help the first one. He’s having a big-time year for us. We wouldn’t be 22-6 without his productivity in the middle of our lineup.”
Said Dantzler: “Last year, I kind of started off a little slow and I let that compound a little bit and I started telling myself I needed to do more. Before you know it, you look at your average and you’re hitting .230 and you’re like, ‘All right, I’ve got to hit a 10-run home run right here,’ which you can’t do. This year, I was 4 for 20-something going into this week (3 for 22), but I just didn’t let it bother me.”
** Westmoreland said his control is better than in the past, and that’s why his numbers are way better. He has a 0.96 ERA, 29 strikeouts and three walks in 28 innings this season. Entering this season, he had 86 strikeouts, 54 walks and a 4.46 ERA in his career.
“I’m not really holding anything back, not that I have in the past,” he said. “But coming off surgery, you’re kind of still hesitant. There are guys that go a long time with the same issue and finally just get over it, and when you do, everything seems to click.”
** Shortstop Joey Pankake couldn’t scoop a slow-rolling grounder on Saturday and he now has 11 errors in his 27 games played this season. Last season he had 17 in 66 games. Holbrook knows Pankake is stronger with the bat than the glove, and he has a .323 batting average, second on the team. So it’s not like Holbrook is going to sit Pankake because of his defense. Holbrook wasn’t particularly mad about Pankake’s Saturday error either.
“He’s an amateur player,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to keep that in mind. Ozzie Smith, he probably makes it. It’s OK. I wasn’t disgruntled with that error. I thought he made a couple nice plays there at the end and unleashed a throw there in the ninth to start the inning that I thought was a great play. I’m all right with Joey. We need to shore him up a little bit. I think he has 11 errors. That’s a few too many. But he’s a darn good player, too. He gives you a good at-bat each and every time.”