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January 28, 2013

Who will be USC's Sunday starter?

Less than three weeks before the Feb. 15 season-opener against Liberty, the top two weekend starters for South Carolina are ironclad.

Sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery (6-1, 3.62 ERA in 74 2-3 innings in 2012 as a true freshman) and senior righty Colby Holmes (7-2, 3.05 ERA in 79 2-3 innings) "have distanced themselves as our top two guys," USC coach Chad Holbrook recently said, and in case any doubt lingered, both pitchers further solidified their weekend starting roles with solid scrimmage debuts on Saturday.

"We feel pretty good about our front two guys," Holbrook said. "Jordan had a great offseason. He's gotten a lot bigger and stronger. He's put on some weight. His velocity is up. Last year, he pitched in probably two of our biggest games of the year when our season was on the line. He was given the ball against Clemson (in the NCAA Regional) and he pitched a terrific game against Arkansas in the College World Series with all the pressure in the world upon him.

"Jordan is never in awe of the situation. He is a potential Friday-night guy. We know when we put Jordan Montgomery out there we have a chance to win the game. He is unflappable. We have to keep him healthy. He's one of those lefties that knows how to pitch. Jordan can beat anybody on any day. He's that good."

Montgomery said that gaining strength during the offseason helped eliminate a hitch in his delivery and boosted his velocity.

"He absolutely needed to get stronger, just like all the young guys coming in," USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers said. "He's worked really hard in the weight room. Sometimes he does more than what we ask him to do and we have to reel him back in. He's made a little bit of a jump, it appears, but now he has to go out there and do it for real."

As effective as Montgomery and Holmes are expected to be when they take the mound in 2013, weekends in the SEC involve three games. Who will emerge as the Sunday starter? Right now, the list includes senior southpaw Nolan Belcher (4-2, 2.12 ERA in 29 2-3 innings) and highly acclaimed freshman Jack Wynkoop, one of three players on the roster from Virginia Beach, Va.

"We feel good about Jack Wynkoop. He had a great fall," Holbrook said. "He is a very talented kid, (but) he's a freshman."

Wynkoop was one of the top high school prospects in Virginia a year ago, and has continually proven since arriving at USC that the accolades were well deserved.

"He's just been consistent since he's been here," Meyers said. "I saw him as far back as eighth grade (when Meyers was the coach at Old Dominion) when I was in Norfolk. He's a kid we saw early in his high school career and then I ended up coming here (in 2011). I knew who he was a long time ago.

"He's thrown strikes, changed speeds and gotten movement since he arrived here. He has the build. It remains to be seen where he'll plug in, but he seems to have a good presence out there at this point. He has a chance (to be the Sunday starter), but there are some other guys, too. He's done well and has made a case to potentially be a candidate for Sunday. But we also want to look at some other guys."

Belcher, who provided valuable veteran depth in the bullpen last year after missing the entire 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery, is eager to regain the form he displayed in 2009 and 2010, when he accumulated 108 strikeouts in a combined 112 1-3 innings.

"Nolan Belcher, we think, is back to pitching the way he pitched as a freshman before he got injured," Holbrook said.

The list of dark-horse candidates for the Sunday starter role include senior Patrick Sullivan, junior Forrest Koumas and sophomore Joel Seddon.

"Joel Seddon is better than he was a year ago and he's certainly going to get a lot more opportunities," Holbrook said.

Meyers added, "(Seddon) is better now. He has a year under his belt. The opportunities he had, he handled himself well last year when he got him. He got a couple of spot starts. He didn't set the world on fire coming out of the bullpen, but he handled himself well. His stuff has always been good, but it might be a tad better now."

Koumas started four games among 18 appearances in 2012, finishing with a 2-3 record and 4.82 ERA in 28 innings. One of his two starts came in Game 1 of the national championship series against Arizona. He was bothered last season by injuries, too.

"If he doesn't go Sunday, that doesn't mean he won't be a valuable guy," Meyers said. "We might see that a role out of the bullpen is what we need out of him."

Senior left-hander Tyler Webb has proven more reliable out of the bullpen than as a starter, and has been penciled in as the closer.

"We have a number of guys that we feel real good about," Holbrook said. "One of the strengths of our team is our pitching depth. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of tough decisions to make on who we're going to put into what roles. If we had to play right now, Tyler Webb would be our closer. But he has a lot of help at the back of the bullpen as well. That's how we're going to start."

With so many Sunday options, Holbrook and Meyers will let preseason practice proceed for another week or so before deciding on which pitcher deserves to start on Sunday in the opening series against Liberty.

The early leader in the clubhouse could be Wynkoop.

"We don't know what we're going to do on Sunday yet," Holbrook said. "We have some competition for that Sunday spot. We could start Wynkoop there or we could start off with him in the bullpen as well because he is so adept at doing some of the things you like to have a guy in the bullpen do. He has a great pickoff move, throws strikes, he can field his position. He is going to play a prominent role.

"Right now, though, we don't know if it's going to be on Sunday or in the bullpen."

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