Belcher takes the hill against Cougars

When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Carolina Stadium, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
TV: SportSouth
Probable starting pitchers: College of Charleston - RHP Ryan West (3-3, 3.27 ERA). South Carolina -- LHP Nolan Belcher (2-1, 1.50)
Notes: South Carolina finishes the two-game series with College of Charleston after winning the first game 7-0 at Patriots Point on April 4. … West also started that game and issued six hits, two runs, two walks and struck out three in five innings. … Belcher finished that game but Adam Westmoreland started it. … The Gamecocks have won six of seven and are ranked in the Top 10 in three of the four major polls. … The start of just four remaining non-conference games on the schedule, and the only one this week. USC will not play a midweek game next week due to exams. … The end of a stretch of eight home games among nine.
Next up: USC plays the first of a three-game series at Auburn at 7 p.m. on Friday.
Outsiders would look at this game and figure it was just another chance to pad the win total. While it's not a definite victory, ninth-ranked South Carolina's game tonight against College of Charleston won't be doing much for the Gamecocks' RPI or NCAA Regional resume, even with a loss.
But it is meaningful. Every game that Nolan Belcher gets to pitch is meaningful.
It's another chance to show that he is back.
"Every time I get back out there, I get better and better," Belcher said last week, after earning a win in his first start since May 2010. "I'm getting all my pitches over and throwing strikes."
As the Gamecocks (27-10) have re-shuffled their pitching staff, Belcher's name has continued to rise. After sitting out the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery and dealing with a foot injury that cost him most of 2011 fall practice, Belcher knew his chances to make an impact were slim. He knew he'd get a chance, but if that one was lost in a sea of inconsistent pitching, he probably wouldn't get another one.
So he pitched well. He pitched very well the next time. He got a chance to start against The Citadel a week ago and struck out seven around three hits in 5 2-3 innings. When nobody could throw a strike in a 5-3 win over Mississippi State on Saturday, Belcher relieved and ended the inning with a ground ball.
Even after Adam Westmoreland had seemed to harness the midweek role, Belcher was named tonight's starter when College of Charleston (25-12) come to town. He'll get another chance to prove himself by attempting to sweep the Cougars in the season series.
"He's had some good innings for us and hasn't had as many opportunities as we wanted to give him," coach Ray Tanner said after The Citadel game. "We've been getting some pretty good distance out of our starters and he's a guy that's sort of been in the middle for us. He's been feeling really good, his pens have been good and coach (Jerry) Meyers made the suggestion that we get him on the mound for the start. He looked really good to me."
It's been a frustrating journey for Belcher, who seemed to have it all together after his freshman season in 2009. A weekend pitcher then, Belcher went 4-5 with a 5.33 ERA. Raw, but the potential was there - if he could cut down on his walks (41 in 82 2-3 innings), his strikeouts (76) would be much more impressive.
But Belcher lost his spot in 2010, when Blake Cooper took over the Friday role, Sam Dyson had the Saturday spot and a revolving door of Sunday pitchers didn't include him. Belcher was a mid-week or spot-start guy, taking the bump during the SEC tournament, but not pitching in Omaha even as an overtaxed USC staff claimed the national championship.
Then came 2011, when Belcher had a terrific preseason before he felt something pop and he had to take himself off the mound. The grueling rehabilitation work took its toll, Belcher wondering if he would have a spot when he got back - a second straight national championship had recruits knocking down the door to get to USC, and while Tanner would never give up on a guy "with stripes on his sleeve," Belcher could read the writing on the wall.
If the arm wasn't as good, he would just have to win anyway. Wait for the chance, and then grab it.
He did, and now he gets another chance. But this time, it's about cementing the position instead of trying to claim it.
"I was just trying to work one pitch at a time, one batter at the time," Belcher said. "I was really just concentrating to get a double-play ball."
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