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February 12, 2013
Senior right-hander Patrick Sullivan has been utilized primarily as an occasional and unheralded middle relief pitcher throughout his first three seasons on the South Carolina staff.
Now he could be stepping into the spotlight.
Sullivan, respected enough by his teammates to be voted one of three team captains even though he's thrown just 49 innings in his career, emerged during preseason camp as a surprise challenger to Nolan Belcher and Jack Wynkoop for the Sunday starter role.
Last week, Sullivan threw three effective innings in his final outing of preseason camp. When the weekend was over, coach Chad Holbrook asserted that the A.C. Flora High School graduate had catapulted himself into the discussion for the prestigious third weekend starter job behind stalwarts Jordan Montgomery and Colby Holmes.
"Patrick Sullivan has made a strong case, too (to become the third weekend starter)," Holbrook said Monday on 107.5 The Game. "Patrick has been terrific. He's in the conversation. We're certainly going to use him in a prominent role. I don't know if it will be a weekend starter role, but he's certainly going to get some very important innings for us."
Even though he's officially a fifth-year senior, Sullivan has seen most of his mound time in the last two seasons. He redshirted in 2009 before throwing just six innings in seven appearances in 2010.
His innings pitched increased to 20 in 2011, when he yielded just 14 hits and five runs for a 1.35 ERA. Last season, he recorded a 3.52 ERA in 23 innings, allowing 25 hits and nine runs while striking out 16 and walking 11.
According to Holbrook, Sullivan pitched "the best since he's been here" in last week's scrimmage.
"Coach (Jerry) Meyers and I are continuing to discuss that deal," Holbrook said. "There are three people in the conversation, at least for this Sunday. We have some deserving guys for that spot."
Based merely on experience, Belcher would appear to have the edge. He's tossed 142 innings in his three seasons of active duty with the Gamecocks (2009-10, 2012) with 21 career starts.
"He's a guy that gives us stability," Meyers recently said.
Ending a couple years of frustration, Belcher has been dominating at times during his weekly appearances in the preseason scrimmages.
"Nolan Belcher has been terrific," Holbrook said. "He was probably our most pleasant surprise in the three weekends of scrimmages. He looks like he's back to his form when he was a weekend starter in his freshman year back in 2009. Nolan is in the mix."
The foundation for Belcher's bounce back has been good health. For the first time since he hurled 82 2-3 innings as a freshmen, Belcher's left arm feels 100 percent. After sitting out the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, Belcher threw 29 2-3 innings in 19 appearances last season, but rarely felt as if he was all the way back.
Now he does.
"He's just healthy," Holbrook said. "He's been through the wringer from an injury standpoint. Sometimes it takes a kid two years to get back from an injury requiring Tommy John surgery. He pitched for us last year, but we didn't think he was the real Nolan Belcher or the one that was recruited to pitch here, or the one that was pitching the way he was when he beat Arkansas and Ole Miss (his only career complete game) as a freshman. He's pitched in some important games for us."
Meyers estimated that Belcher pitched at an 80 percent health rate in 2012.
"He was cleared (to play), but he didn't have the same feel," Meyers said. "Now he's looser and he's bouncing back (from appearances) better, all those things that help him bring his stuff to the table. He has maturity about him and he's not afraid. He doesn't panic and he's reliable."
Belcher allowed less than one hit per inning in 2012 (22 hits in 29 2-3 innings) while striking out 35, so his velocity and ball movement were good enough to keep hitters off-balance. But Holbrook knew that the "real" Belcher was lurking somewhere inside the 5-foot-8 southpaw.
"Last year, we didn't think he was quite back from his surgery and his rehab," Holbrook said. "He pitched his heart out when he pitched. He did fine, but it wasn't Nolan Belcher. Now, I think, he's back at 100 percent and his confidence is at an all-time high since he's been here. The fact he's healthy and he has his confidence back have been the two most factors in his performance so far."
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