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June 5, 2013

USC's lefties face another challenge



NCAA CHAPEL HILL SUPER REGIONAL
Friday-Sunday
Boshamer Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Friday

Game 1 -- No. 18 South Carolina at No. 5 North Carolina, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Saturday
Game 2 -- No. 18 South Carolina at No. 5 North Carolina, noon (ESPN)
Sunday
Game 3 -- No. 18 South Carolina at No. 5 North Carolina (if necessary), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Good pitching beats good hitting. South Carolina has proved it on numerous occasions over the past four years.

The No. 18 Gamecocks, again two wins from Omaha, will try to do it one more time this weekend with the same formula they have used all season - Lefty, Lefty, Lefty.

Heading to homer-happy Boshamer Stadium (at least, regional opponent Florida Atlantic surely broke out the lumber), USC (42-18) is set to face top national seed North Carolina (55-9). As usual, the Tar Heels are deep throughout the lineup, pitching rotation and bullpen, regarded as one of the most talented teams in the country and were considered a near-lock for the College World Series since the preseason.

So why does USC feel confident? Several reasons.

One, it's the Gamecocks, not the Tar Heels, that have made the CWS their personal playground over the past three years. They know what must be done in the postseason to advance - just look at the increased energy they brought to their NCAA Regional and the way they correctly performed all of the little things.

Two, the way that FAU took the Tar Heels to the brink, over and over again, showed that any opponent doesn't have to be intimidated by the stark look of UNC. Sure, the Heels won the game and advanced, but the Owls didn't play afraid.

Three, and most importantly, USC has the matchup advantage. Like it has since 2010, the pitching staff is anchored by a left-hander. And this year, it's anchored by five left-handers.

"We just think it's funny, because it's all shapes and sizes with us," middle relief ace Adam Westmoreland recently said. "You've got anyone from (Nolan) Belcher's size to as tall as (Tyler) Webb and (Jordan Montgomery) and anywhere in between. We kind of pick at each other because for the most part, we all throw the same."

They'll all take their turn against UNC's lineup, which bats a collective .310, the 13th-best total in the NCAA. And which starts six left-handed hitters.

With starting catcher Matt Roberts sidelined with a broken thumb, the Tar Heels are expected to start Parks Jordan in left field as usual left fielder Brian Holberton replaces Roberts behind the plate. That removes the right-handed Roberts from the lineup and replaces him with a lefty. Holberton is also a lefty.

Jordan and Holberton will join Chaz Frank, Colin Moran, Cody Stubbs and Mike Zolk as lefty starters for the Heels. Landon Lassiter, Michael Russell and switch-hitter Skye Bolt will break up the stacks of lefties. USC, which will start Belcher, Montgomery and lefty Jack Wynkoop if necessary, likes the look of the lineup, especially with the lefty Westmoreland and the lefty Webb as the top two options from the bullpen.

USC knew that Montgomery and Webb would be integral parts of the pitching staff this year, and had high hopes for Wynkoop. But Belcher and Westmoreland were complete surprises, and once Wynkoop shed early-season struggles, he joined the rotation as the Sunday starter.

Five lefties, something that is unusual but has gotten the job done. Pitching coach Jerry Meyers is a bit surprised by the fact that all of his top guys are southpaws, but not stunned by the production of each.

"It's just kind of a coincidence, I think, that a couple of things have happened," Meyers recently said. "Three of those guys are older guys. They have a vast amount of experience in the bullpen and starting. With the three seniors there, they moved to the top. They're strike-throwers. It doesn't surprise me that they're having some success at this point."

The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft will be occurring at the same time as USC and UNC play their NCAA Super Regional. The Tar Heels will most likely have several names called, and USC should have a few. Westmoreland, Webb and Belcher are all out of eligibility this year, while Montgomery and Wynkoop will return.

But drafted or not, the biggest prize is what awaits the winner of the Super Regional. The statistic is mind-boggling - between USC and UNC, one will make it eight straight years where one has been to the CWS (each team went in 2011).

Can the Gamecocks beat the top-seed Tar Heels and get back for the fourth straight year? Can the five lefties shut down a lefty-stocked lineup on its home field?

Matchups aside, USC feels comfortable with what got it here. Two more wins and the story is a resounding success.

"We have so many righties, too, and lefties are supposed to be less likely to pitch than righties," Westmoreland said. "The last few years, we've always had five or six lefties that can go out and throw at any point in the game. Everybody feels comfortable with them. It kind of recycles itself."



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