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April 1, 2013

Look back, look ahead: Back on track

South Carolina's already deep pitching staff could get a huge boost later this week.

Sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery, the expected Friday starter sidelined since suffering an elbow stress reaction following his March 1 start at Clemson, was due to throw in the bullpen on Monday, perhaps opening the door to his return this weekend.

If Montgomery is able to return, he will join a staff led by senior left-hander Nolan Belcher (5-2, 1.57 ERA in 51.2 innings) and bullpen stalwarts Adam Westmoreland (tied for the SEC lead with an 0.96 ERA in 28 innings) and Tyler Webb (an SEC-leading 11 saves).

"Our fingers are crossed for Jordan," coach Chad Holbrook said on Monday on 107.5 The Game. "He's had his bullpen and he had some soreness, which is normal after a bullpen. We're going to see if it calms down in the next day or so. We're going to handle him extremely carefully. I hope he's ready to go this weekend, but I don't know if that will be the case.

"He's very important to us and he wants to be out on the mound worse than anything. But we can't do anything to rush him back and lose him for the entire year."

Belcher has gone a span of 47 innings without allowing a walk and leads the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio, with 51 strikeouts compared to just one walk in 51.2 innings.

Webb recorded a save in all three wins over the Aggies, including a two-inning, 30-pitch stint in the series-opener, four days after throwing over 80 pitches in the series finale against Arkansas.

Webb, who not allowed a run in 14 of 15 relief appearances this year, ranks third in appearances in school history with 93 and is one short of Michael Roth (2009-12) for second all-time.

Revitalizing his career, Westmoreland retired 25 of the 33 Texas A&M batters he faced this past weekend during USC's surprising three-game sweep, allowing just six hits and one run with 10 strikeouts in 9.1 innings.

"I started feeling Adam was doing some really good things when he had his outing (March 2) against Clemson," Holbrook said. "He gained so much confidence from that. He's pitched well every time out and made our bullpen very formidable and deeper. We feel we can use Adam in a variety of roles. He bounces back very quickly. He's thrown strikes and eaten innings."

Westmoreland allowed three hits and one run in 4.1 innings against Clemson on March 2 at Fluor Field.

How impressive has USC's bullpen been this season, especially the duo of Westmoreland and Webb? USC is 20-0 when leading after six innings and 15-0 when out-hitting the opponent. The Gamecocks have allowed five runs or less in 25 of 28 games played this season, compiling a record of 21-4 when allowing five runs or less. USC is 12-4 in games decided by three runs or less.

Limiting Texas A&M to nine runs in three games allowed USC to emerge with the three-game sweep despite hitting just .247 (23-of-93) in the series. Saturday's 6-3 win exemplified how the matchup went as USC was out-hit 8-7 but had five extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs by LB Dantzler and a long ball by Connor Bright.

Dantzler hit .455 (5-for-11) in the Texas A&M series with a pair of homers, three runs scored and five RBIs. Dantzler had his second two-homer game of the season on Sunday along with a key two-run opposite-field double that helped spark a come-from-behind 3-2 win in the series-opener.

For the season, Dantzler leads USC in the three triple crown categories: Batting average (.357, 35-for-98), homers (nine), and RBIs (32), as well as slugging percentage (.724). He also has a .454 on-base percentage, second to Tanner English (.468).

Dantzler is tied for second in the SEC in homers, third in slugging percentage and sixth in RBIs. He leads the Gamecocks with eight multi-hit games and seven multi-RBI games.

"LB has been critical for us because as a team, I don't think we've swung the bats very well to this point," Holbrook said. "He's helped mask some of our struggles with the way he's swung it. For all intents and purposes, he's carried us for some time. We've jumped on his back like we did on Saturday. When he gets his pitch, he hasn't been missing it."

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Adam Westmoreland
RECORD: 22-6, 5-4 SEC
NATIONAL RANKINGS: No. 15 in Baseball America, No. 14 in Collegiate Baseball, No. 11 in USA Today/ESPN coaches'

March 26 at College of Charleston, W 3-1
March 29 vs. Texas A&M, W 3-2
March 30 vs. Texas A&M, W 6-4
March 31 vs. Texas A&M, W 6-3

HEADED TO KNOXVILLE: After a pair of contests against Palmetto State schools on Tuesday and Wednesday, USC heads to Knoxville for a three-game series against Tennessee beginning at 6 p.m. on Friday. The intra-divisional series continues Saturday (12:30 p.m.) and finishes on Sunday (2 p.m.)

USC announced on Monday that senior right-hander Colby Holmes (2-2, 4.20 ERA in 30 IP) is the probable starting pitcher for the Gamecocks in Tuesday's home game against Charleston Southern.

Charleston Southern enters the contest with an 11-6 record, including a 3-3 record in the Big South. Coach Stuart Lake is in his fifth season at the helm of the Buccaneers. He served as an assistant from 1999-2002 at South Carolina under former coach and current athletic director Ray Tanner.

Tennessee (13-13, 3-6) was swept by Vanderbilt in Nashville this past weekend, but hung tough against the No. 3 Commodores, losing the opener in extra innings and watching an early four-lead lead evaporate on Sunday.

Freshman shortstop A.J. Simcox led a potent Tennessee offensive attack as the Vols pounded out 34 hits over three games against the talented Vanderbilt pitching staff. The Knoxville native paced the Vols with a .545 average, going 6-for-11 with three runs scored and two RBIs in the series.

April 2 vs. Charleston Southern, 7 p.m.
April 3 vs. Furman (at Fluor Field), 7 p.m.
April 5 at Tennessee, 6 p.m.
April 6 at Tennessee, 12:30 p.m. (SportSouth)
April 7 at Tennessee, 2 p.m.

* Four former Gamecocks are on active rosters for the 2013 Major League Baseball season. Jackie Bradley Jr. (2009-11) made his MLB debut on Monday for Boston against the New York Yankees. Justin Smoak (2006-08) begins his fourth season in the big leagues with Seattle at Oakland tonight. Brian Roberts (1999) and Steve Pearce (2004-05) are members of the Baltimore Orioles. In addition, a pair of Gamecocks are on 40-man rosters for their respective teams: James Darnell (2006-08) is on the 15-day disabled list with San Diego and Sam Dyson (2008-10) is part of the Miami Marlins organization.

* Sophomore shortstop Joey Pankake has reached base in 20 consecutive games. Pankake is the team's second-best hitter with a .323 average (30-for-93) with 20 runs scored, three doubles, five homers and 21 RBIs.

* Bright has reached base safely in 10 straight games and raised his average to .275 (19-for-69) with 13 runs scored.

* English went 4-for-9 (.444) in the Texas A&M series and is hitting .305 (18-for-59) with six RBIs and 11 runs scored. English leads the Gamecocks in SEC contests with a .286 batting average (6-for-21) in league games.

* The Gamecock pitching staff boasts a 2.62 ERA in 251 innings with 258 strikeouts and 72 walks. Opponents are batting .227 against the Gamecocks. USC leads the SEC with 15 saves.

* USC is hitting .266 (239-for-898) as a team with a .370 on-base percentage. The Gamecocks rank second in the SEC with 22 home runs. Defensively, the Gamecocks have a .977 fielding percentage with 24 errors in 28 games.

* Junior outfielder Graham Saiko returned to the lineup for the Texas A&M series. The Gamecocks are 19-2 with Saiko starting in left field. He had the game-winning RBI in the 3-2 win over the Aggies.

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