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January 30, 2012

Belcher bounces back from arm surgery



Nolan Belcher remembers the moment when he realized something was seriously wrong with his left arm.

It was the first full team scrimmage of preseason camp a year ago. Belcher threw a pitch, just like he had done thousands of times in high school and college.

Except this time there was a sharp twinge in his elbow. Belcher threw two more pitches before finally surrendering to the throbbing pain.

When he walked off the mound that day he knew his season was over.

Twelve months later, Belcher is still able to recall every detail of the fateful - and nightmarish - moment.

"It was our first intra-squad scrimmage last spring. I had two strikes on Austin Ashmore and I threw a slider," Belcher said recently. "I felt a little twinge in my elbow. I knew something wasn't right. I tried to throw two more pitches after that. But the pain was unbearable. I had to just walk off the mound. I knew it was gone. I had a MRI the next day and they said it was 98 percent torn."

Belcher underwent Tommy John surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Doctors pulled a ligament from his hamstring and inserted it into his elbow. All of a sudden, new elbow.

"It's a pretty neat process," Belcher said. "It's amazing what they can do, but it's definitely difficult."

Months of rigorous rehab followed, a long, lonely and "miserable" process that culminated on Saturday when Belcher took the mound for the first time in a year, throwing two hitless innings in the second scrimmage of preseason camp.

"I'm ready to get back to it. It really humbles you, getting hurt like that," Belcher said. "It makes you realize how much you miss about the game. (Rehab) is a miserable process. I was doing the same thing every day. It's really tough mentally to go into the training room and try to get better each day.

"It was pretty bad the first two or three months. When you come out of surgery, your range of motion isn't quite the same. They have to keep trying to stretch your arm out to try to get it straight again. That pain is almost worse than when I actually tore the ligament. It's a long rehab process. It's not fun at all."

The surgery marked the first serious injury of Belcher's career. He suffered a broken wrist in high school, but was sidelined for just two weeks.

Belcher faced eight batters on Saturday, striking out two and walking none. Two batters reached base, but both were the product of errors.

USC coach Ray Tanner was ecstatic at seeing Belcher take the mound because he knows another veteran presence on the staff will boost the Gamecocks' chances of three-peating as national champions.

"That was very encouraging," Tanner said. "I was glad to see Nolan out there. I know his teammates were hooting him a little bit, but he was good. He felt confident and his stuff was pretty good."

Because he was redshirted last season, Belcher has two years of eligibility remaining.

"Going into (last) spring, I felt really good," Belcher said. "I didn't have any inclination I would get hurt. It was just one pitch and it popped. It definitely caught me off guard."

Belcher signed with USC following a legendary high school career in Augusta, Ga., in which he went a combined 47-2 with 516 strikeouts in 282 innings pitched at Greenbrier and Augusta Christian High Schools, and played on three state championship teams.

The 5-foot-8 lefthander quickly transitioned to major college baseball, becoming one of USC's top hurlers in the fall of 2008. As a freshman, Belcher started 13 games and compiled a record of 4-5 with a 5.33 ERA in 82 2-3 innings.

His best career performance came on April 11, 2009, when he hurled a complete-game eight-hitter at Ole Miss in an 8-1 Gamecock victory. He fanned eight Rebel batters that day.

Performing again at that elite level motivates Belcher every day.

"That's what I'm shooting for," he said. "I think I can get there."

Belcher uncharacteristically struggled with his control as a freshman in 2009, issuing 41 walks in 82 1-3 innings, or one free pass every two innings. Those concerns continued into 2010 when he walked 18 batters and uncorked a team-high five wild pitches in 29 2-3 innings.

On the surface, Belcher's numbers in 2010 were good (3-1 record, 2.43 ERA, 18 hits allowed, 32 strikeouts), but his wildness prevented him from pitching as many innings as he would have liked.

Now, after a year off, Belcher is eager to mount his comeback bid. As far as competing for a weekend or midweek starting job, his goal is to just pitch and let the chips fall where they may.

"Arm-wise, I feel like I'm pretty close right now," Belcher said. "One more month and I'll be ready to go 100 percent. It's feeling a lot stronger than it did. I'm just out here trying to help the team win anyway I can. If that's spot-starting or coming out of the bullpen, I'll do whatever I can."

Many pitchers are able to throw harder following Tommy John surgery. Belcher, though, has yet to experience that byproduct of the surgical procedure first performed in 1974 and named after the former major league pitcher.

"I've heard from people that you come back stronger, but you also have to rehab really tough and do all the work if you want to come back stronger," Belcher said. "Hopefully, I will come back stronger."

When he was healthy two years ago, Belcher's fastball reached the low 90s. He hasn't attained that level yet, but hopes to get there soon. He acknowledges that he's not yet at 100 percent in terms of speed on his pitches.

"I have plenty of room for improvement and try to get more velocity," said Belcher, who also relies on a changeup and breaking ball. "I'm close, though."

As a result of his serious arm injury, Belcher was forced to watch from the dugout as USC captured a second consecutive national championship in Omaha.

"I was really happy for them," Belcher said. "I was happy coach Tanner allowed me to go out there with the team. But it definitely hurts watching them play and compete out there. You wish you could be out there with them."

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D. McCallum


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