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March 18, 2013

Look back, look ahead: SEC play begins



Nolan Belcher's streak goes on and on.

The senior left-hander extended his consecutive scoreless streak to 26.1 innings when he blanked Missouri over 8.1 innings in a 2-0 victory at Taylor Stadium in Columbia, Mo., on Saturday in the first game of a weather-forced doubleheader.

Moreover, by not allowing a Missouri runner to reach second base and limiting the Tigers to just five hits and fanning six batters while walking none, he improved his staggering strikeout-to-walk ratio to an unthinkable 36-to-1 with the season nearing the halfway mark.

Belcher has not given up a walk since the opening weekend, a span of 31 1-3 innings, and hasn't given up a run since his start against Albany on Feb. 24. For the season, Belcher is 4-1 with a 1.25 ERA in 36 innings. Opponents are hitting a lowly .206 against him.

"Belcher pitched a gem. He's pitching very well," USC coach Chad Holbrook said on Monday on 107.5 The Game. "Obviously, that's an understatement. He has worked extremely hard to get back to this level before he was injured. He can throw any pitch in any count. His stuff is pretty darned good and he has great makeup. He loves to compete. He loves having the ball in his hand. He lets his defense work behind him. It's been poetry in motion, watching him pitch."

Belcher's sterling performance highlighted USC's series win over the Tigers, who made their SEC debut after winning the Big 12 tournament and earning a spot in an NCAA regional last season. Right-hander Evan Beal (6 1-3 innings, eight hits, one run, a career-high 10 strikeouts, one walk) set a positive tone on Friday by combining with southpaw relievers Adam Westmoreland (1.1 innings, one hit) and Tyler Webb (1.1 innings, no hits), who retired all four batters he faced, to scatter nine Missouri hits in a 4-1 win.

"Anytime you go on the road in the SEC and you're able to win two games, you take it, you get on the plane and come home," Holbrook said. "It's not always easy. And it's certainly wasn't easy this weekend. Friday night was a great college baseball game. We had good weather and two really talented pitchers matching each other pitch for pitch. We were able to push a couple of runs across and Tyler Webb was special again at the end of the game."

Beal's 10 strikeouts marked the first time a USC pitcher had reached double figures in that category in a single game in 2013. He has a perfect 2-0 record and 0.56 ERA in 16 innings with just three walks, compared to 21 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .203 against him.

Holbrook confirmed Beal and Belcher will remain the Friday and Saturday starters for the Gamecocks.

Webb registered two saves in the series, pushing his season total to seven in 10 appearances. He set down all six Missouri batters he faced during the weekend in the "other" Columbia.

Webb has not allowed a run in 11.1 innings with just five hits and three walks allowed while striking out 18. Opponents are hitting a meager .139 against him, the lowest average on the USC staff among hurlers with 10 or more innings pitched.

Besides the solid outings from Beal and Belcher, two major storylines emerging from the Missouri series weren't as encouraging.

Left fielder Graham Saiko suffered a wrist injury in Friday's game and sat out the rest of the weekend. However, Holbrook said on Monday that the injury was less severe than what team doctors initially thought.

"We were very relieved (Sunday) because we were concerned we had lost Graham for the entire year," Holbrook said. "When we were flying home, the medical staff was very concerned he had suffered a broken wrist. But the report we got back on him was very uplifting."

Also, senior right-hander Colby Holmes struggled for the third straight start, allowing three hits and three runs in 1.1 innings in chilly conditions until he was replaced by Westmoreland, who worked the next 4.2 innings and kept the Gamecocks in the game by yielding just one run.

In his last three appearances (Clemson, Rider, Missouri), Holmes has allowed 16 hits, 12 runs and eight walks in 10.1 innings, putting his weekend starting spot in jeopardy.

Considering Holmes threw only 41 pitches against Missouri before being lifted, Holbrook didn't rule out putting Holmes back on the hill for a short stint at The Citadel on Tuesday.

"This is big-boy baseball. You can't use weather as a crutch or an excuse," Holbrook said. "It was cold for them, too. It wasn't easy to pitch, but Colby just isn't throwing the ball well right now. We have to get him straight, get him figured out. And he has to figure some things out too. He's too talented a pitcher and done too much in this program.

"Could Colby possibly get a little work in (on Tuesday)? Who knows? He might have to throw a couple of extra bullpens to get some things ironed out. Is he out of the mix for pitching this weekend? Absolutely not. He could easily pitch Sunday. We just want him feeling good about himself when he goes out and pitches next. We want him back on track from a mental standpoint."

Holmes has a career record of 17-7, including 14-1 at Carolina Stadium. Saturday's outing marked his 50th career appearance for USC.

"Unfortunately, he's going through a little bit of a rough stretch," Holbrook said. "But I know Colby. He'll figure it out. We have to pick our spots to get him in there to get him some confidence and let him experience some success. Hopefully, we'll get the real Colby Holmes back. The good news is he's healthy and his arm feels great. He's a little upset with himself."

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Nolan Belcher and Tyler Webb
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 4-1
OVERALL RECORD: 17-3 (2-1 SEC)
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 5 in Baseball America, No. 5 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 6 in USA Today/ESPN coaches'

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS
March 12 vs. USC Upstate, W 12-3
March 13 vs. Davidson, W 12-4
March 15 at Missouri, W 4-1
March 16 at Missouri, W 2-0
Match 17 at Missouri, L 4-0

RAZORBACKS COME CALLING: USC will put its 14-1 home mark on the line when Arkansas makes the long trip to Columbia for a three-game series starting at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. The Razorbacks began the season atop multiple preseason polls, but fell to No. 21 after going 3-2 last week. The Razorbacks swept a midweek series against Alabama A&M before dropping two of three games to Ole Miss. Arkansas is 14-7, 1-2 SEC.

For the season, the Razorbacks are hitting .284 and the pitching staff has a 1.81 ERA. Joe Serrano led the Razorbacks at the plate last week by going 7-for-15 with four RBIs and four runs scored, while Matt Vinson hit .389 (7-for-18) with three RBIs and a pair of runs.

Before the Hogs arrive in the Palmetto State, USC makes the first of two trips to Charleston within a span of eight days when it squares off with The Citadel on Tuesday at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park. The Bulldogs won two of three games from Wofford in Spartanburg this past weekend in the opening Southern Conference series for both teams.

THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE
Tuesday at The Citadel, 7 p.m.
Friday vs. Arkansas, 7:30 p.m. (CSS)
Saturday vs. Arkansas, 3:15 p.m. (Fox Sports South)
Sunday vs. Arkansas, 1:30 p.m.

NOTES
* Holbrook said that left-hander Jordan Montgomery, suffering from elbow tension, will be re-evaluated on Monday. Last week, Holbrook ruled Montgomery out of the Arkansas and Texas A&M (March 29-31) series with an eye on the Sumter native perhaps returning for the Tennessee series (April 5-7) as long as team doctors clear him to pitch.

* Outfielder Ahmad Christian has been sidelined for three weeks with a back injury. Holbrook said Christian will hopefully be cleared by team doctors soon. Holbrook predicted USC will be 100 percent healthy by the midseason point in early April.

* After limiting opponents to 12 runs in five games last week, USC's team ERA stands at 2.08 in 177 innings with 175 strikeouts and 51 walks in 20 games. Opponents are hitting .213 against the Gamecocks with just 24 extra-base hits, an average of slightly more than one per game.

* Sophomore outfielder TJ Costen was the Gamecocks' top hitter last week with a .429 average (6-for-14) in five games with a pair of doubles, two RBIs and four runs scored. Costen had a key two-run single and a pair of hits in a 4-1 win over Missouri last Friday. He also went 3-for-4 with two doubles and three runs scored in the 12-3 win over USC Upstate.

* Joey Pankake is USC's second-best hitter with a .333 average (21-for-63) with four homers, 15 runs scored and 17 RBIs. He has reached base safely in 12 straight games.

* USC had two homers in the Missouri series. Grayson Greiner's solo shot gave it a 1-0 lead in the top of the third of Friday's 4-1 win. The following day, Chase Vergason's solo homer concluded the scoring in a 2-0 win in Game 1 of the weather-forced doubleheader. After batting .258 with one homer and 13 RBIs last season, Vergason is hitting .306 with three homers and 10 RBIs after 20 games.

* USC is hitting .287 as a team (185-for-645) with 16 homers, 130 runs scored and a .393 on-base percentage with 103 walks and 19 hit-by-pitches.

* Defensively, USC improved its team fielding percentage to an SEC-best .981 with just 14 errors on the season. The Gamecocks did not commit an error in the Missouri series and have 12 errorless games out of 20 on the season. Holbrook described USC's team fielding percentage as "incredible." He attributed USC's 17-3 record mainly to great pitching and defense.

* USC is 6-1 in games decided by one or two runs this season.

* USC has yet to lose this season when leading after six innings.



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