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February 5, 2013
When senior left-hander Nolan Belcher hurled a complete-game victory at Ole Miss four years ago, he appeared to be on the road toward becoming a dominant pitcher for South Carolina.
Unfortunately, injuries and a bout with wildness intervened.
After sitting out the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, Belcher returned in a limited role last season, compiling a 2.12 ERA in 29 2-3 innings with 22 hits and seven runs allowed.
Now he looks to come full-circle.
Over a span of consecutive weekends in April 2009, Belcher may have been the most dominant pitcher in the country, first limiting Arkansas to one run on four hits with nine strikeouts in 8 1-3 innings in a 9-1 victory at Carolina Stadium.
Seven days later, Belcher turned in perhaps the best performance of his career when he shut down the powerful Ole Miss offense, scattering nine hits in a complete-game 8-1 victory in Oxford, Miss. It remains the lone complete game of his career.
With his arm finally 100 percent healthy, Belcher has reverted to his 2009 form during the preseason scrimmages. Facing a lineup consisting mainly of starters, he set down the first seven hitters last week during a three-inning stint.
The starter on the opposite side was his primary rival for the Sunday starter role - freshman left-hander Jack Wynkoop, a Virginia Beach, Va., native that arrived in Columbia with impressive credentials.
Will Belcher's experience be enough to earn the final spot in the weekend rotation?
"Nolan has done a great job so far," USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers said on Monday during the "Inside the Roost" program on 107.5 The Game. "Last year, Nolan was operating at about 80 percent. He was cleared, but he wasn't quite as loose as he was before. Now we're seeing more of the way he was as a freshman in terms of his command and his pitches a little better.
"He has always been super-competitive. As a senior and captain, we're hoping we can lean on him a little bit like we did when he burst onto the scene as a freshman and made some noise early in his career."
While Belcher and Wynkoop are battling, Colby Holmes and Jordan Montgomery have cemented weekend starting roles. The only question remaining is which one will earn the privilege of starting on Friday.
"Colby has a lot of experience in league play and postseason play," Meyers said. "The fact that two guys have emerged that do have SEC experience and have done it in the postseason (is significant)."
Montgomery has just one year of experience under his belt, but he grew up in the postseason when he faced Clemson in the NCAA Regional and Arkansas in the College World Series in pressure-packed scenarios, and passed with flying colors.
"Jordan is not a veteran guy necessarily, but he's a sophomore who has significant innings," Meyers said. "He has pitched on the big stage and performed and handled it well. He showed great demeanor in the postseason and down the stretch with two of the best outings of his career when we needed them the most, in elimination games in Omaha and against Clemson here in the regional."
Meyers also hopes to be able to rely upon the veteran leadership of seniors such as closer Tyler Webb and middle reliever Patrick Sullivan.
Webb, who has proven to be better out of the bullpen than as a starter during his career (his last start came in April 2011), will fill a new role this season - closer.
"It's going to be different because getting those last ones are the toughest ones," Meyers said. "We have all the confidence in the world that he can be an outstanding short reliever for us. We may label him 'the closer' at some point in time, but he'll get some help. It will come down to whatever we need to do to get those crucial outs when we get down to the last six to nine outs and it's a tight game."
Sullivan made a career-high 13 appearances in 2012, throwing 23 innings with 25 hits and nine runs allowed. His experience could pay dividends in 2013.
"They've been around the block and know what's going on," Meyers said of Webb and Sullivan. "That helps. When those guys are out there, you don't have a guy that you're wondering if he knows the signs and if he knows how to hold runners and field his position. We have some experience returning."
Meyers also looks for Forrest Koumas to bounce back from an injury that sidelined him for a month until he started against Arizona in the national championship series last year. He threw 28 innings with four starts last season.
"Hopefully, Forrest is back to being healthy again," Meyers said. "He has pitched pretty well in the SEC and in the national championship series in Omaha. Those experiences are invaluable, but you have to use them to your advantage. Forrest is a guy that could fit into the mix somewhere."
After two weeks of preseason camp, Meyers is pleased where the USC pitching staff stands in the first year without stalwarts Michael Roth and Matt Price. But more than a week remains until the season-opener on Feb. 15, so plenty of bullpen and scrimmage work remains before the Gamecocks square off with Liberty in the opener of a three-game series.
"It's been a good two weeks. We need to have one more good week before we get ready to play for good," Meyers said.
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