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March 21, 2013
Unless statistics actually lie - and sometimes they do - elite pitching will be on parade this weekend when No. 5 South Carolina (18-3, 2-1 SEC) squares off with No. 21 Arkansas (14-7, 1-2) in a pivotal early-season SEC showdown series between a pair of Top 25 ranked teams.
Arkansas tops the SEC with a microscopic team ERA of 1.81 in 21 games, while the Gamecocks are third at 2.18, also in 21 contests. USC coach Chad Holbrook has kept Evan Beal (2-0, 0.56 ERA in 16 innings) and Nolan Belcher (4-1, 1.25 ERA in 36 innings) in their Friday and Saturday slots, with Sunday TBA.
Seven of USC's 14 games in March have involved a shutout, six by the USC pitching staff. Arkansas has tossed two shutouts and allowed fewer than four runs on nine of 12 occasions over the same stretch.
"The margin of victory in this league is very minute," Holbrook said on Thursday. "I would expect the games to be extremely competitive and tight and close and low-scoring this weekend, based on their pitching staff and based on ours.
"When we get a guy on first base, we either have to run or hit-and-run. We have to use the sacrifice bunt and get guys in scoring position. I don't think we're going to get three hits in a row against these guys. We have to find a way to put some pressure on them. Scoring opportunities will be few and far between."
If Arkansas is vulnerable, it's on defense. The Razorbacks are 13th in the SEC in team fielding percentage (.961) and have the most errors (33) in the conference, so if a team makes contact and forces the Hogs to make plays with their gloves, it could score enough runs to win.
"We have to put the ball in play and keep our strikeouts down and force them to make plays," Holbrook said.
Belcher will be looking to extend his impressive scoreless streak of 26.1 innings against a Razorback team batting .284 with 10 homers, an average of one every two games. Belcher has allowed just five runs in his last 45 innings dating to the Alabama series in April.
Belcher, who has an absurd strikeout-to-walk ratio of 36-to-1, blanked Missouri over 8.1 innings and didn't allow a runner to reach second base last week in his first start against a SEC opponent since May 22, 2009, when he faced LSU in the SEC tournament, allowing two runs on five hits in six innings.
"His numbers are unheard of," Holbrook marveled. "But he's one of those guys we thought had a chance to be a front-line SEC guy. He's just battled the injury bug. Now his command is back, now he has confidence and he can throw any pitch at any count. And he's left-handed and his stuff is pretty good. He has incredible makeup, a tough nut. I hope he can continue to build on it."
With the regular season approaching the halfway mark, five of the six announced starting pitchers for the series possess an ERA under 2.00. Although carrying a respectable .286 average into the series, the Gamecocks could find runs hard to come by this weekend with Barrett Astin (1-1, 1.90), Ryne Stanek (1-1, 3.32) and Randall Fant (1-0, 1.12) ready take the mound for Arkansas, the preseason No. 1 team in most of the major polls.
"Anytime you play Arkansas, it's a tremendous challenge," Holbrook said. "This year, they're obviously gifted and deep on the mound. Their staff reminds you of those Florida staffs. But they have some position players that have been around the block, too. And they've played a very difficult schedule."
This weekend marks the first meeting between the two programs since the College World Series, when USC won twice to advance to the national championship series.
"I told our guys yesterday that we're going to face three Friday-night starters this weekend and two All-Americans in the bullpen, and I certainly believe that," Holbrook said. "We have our work cut out for us. They are very, very good. But we feel like we're in a good spot as well."
Who will start the third game of the series for the Gamecocks? Holbrook has a number of candidates at his disposal, including left-handers Jack Wynkoop and Adam Westmoreland and struggling senior right-hander Colby Holmes, but contended that he won't make a decision until after Saturday's middle game.
"We might not know until Saturday night," Holbrook said. "I'm not leaning in any direction. Obviously, Wynkoop threw the ball well (at The Citadel on Tuesday). If we have to use Wynkoop or Colby Holmes to help us win Saturday, we just might do it. That's the main reason for the TBA on Sunday. We try to win our next game around here.
"We'll feel good about who we'll be able to put out there on Sunday. I certainly think there's a strong possibility it's going to be either Wynkoop or Holmes."
What is known is Sunday's starter won't be sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery, sidelined for the past two weeks with elbow tension. An MRI taken earlier this week was negative, but Montgomery isn't expected back on the mound until the Tennessee series (April 5-7) at the earliest. But it might not be until the trip to Florida (April 11-13) when he makes his next start.
"The MRI revealed his injury has healed and he will resume his throwing program on Monday," Holbrook said. "But resuming a throwing program and being ready to pitch in a game are two different things. I'm hopeful the weekend following Texas A&M (March 28-30), that he'll be ready to pitch in a game in some capacity.
"More realistic is putting him back in the rotation, if we don't have any bumps in the road, for the Florida series. But if he's ready to go for Tennessee, we're going to put him in there."
Because Beal has been highly effective in consecutive Friday starts against Rider (six innings, one hit, no runs) and Missouri (6.1 innings, eight hits, one run), losing Montgomery for an extended period hasn't had a negative effect upon the Gamecocks.
"I'm not concerned about the depth of our pitching staff," Holbrook said. "That's been one of the strengths of our team."
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