South Carolina could get used to this big-inning thing.
Freshman Grayson Greiner pounded a grand slam into the left-center tunnel to keep a six-run inning going and the No. 10 Gamecocks never let off the gas on Tuesday, crushing The Citadel 8-0 and improving to 24-9. USC got its final two-midweek-game-week off to a good start by riding Nolan Belcher for 5 2-3 innings of three-hit shutout ball, and posted a multi-run frame for the second straight game.
"Where we haven't been consistent is scoring runs and getting enough hits," coach Ray Tanner said. "I've irritated them, I've agitated them with things I've said, because I believe we're a little better offensively than maybe we've shown."
The Gamecocks are either beginning to listen, or are beginning to come around. Either way, just as they did in a four-run outburst against Tennessee, USC is starting to score a run and then add a few more to it.
Belcher kept The Citadel (13-20) off the basepaths with seven strikeouts and just one walk (his nemesis since he enrolled) and USC scratched two runs for him in the third inning. Still, it wasn't nearly enough to be comfortable, and with another game on Wednesday and a series against Mississippi State looming, Tanner wanted to keep his best arms fresh for those games.
He had to wait a little longer, after ace lefty long reliever Tyler Webb had already entered, but he got it.
Adam Matthews reached on a seventh-inning error and Christian Walker doubled him home. Zach Sherrill walked Joey Pankake and pinch-hitter Michael Roth to load the bases, bringing up Greiner.
Greiner, a prodigy that Tanner had labeled as Landon Powell-esque in the preseason, has good power numbers but had struggled to consistently get on base. Despite USC's troubles at mounting big innings and taking itself out of rallies with first-pitch swings, Tanner challenged his young catcher.
"I've been telling him for two weeks to not be patient," Tanner said. "You have to fight your way out. You can't be tentative."
Greiner saw a 2-1 fastball come down and waited for the perfect moment. As soon as he made contact, he knew he'd succeeded.
"All year, we've struggled with men on base. Individually, I've been struggling with it, too," Greiner said. "I was looking for a ball up in the zone that I could drive. Took a good hack on it."
The no-doubter sailed over the wall into the tunnel for the Gamecocks' first grand slam of the year and a sudden 7-0 lead. Evan Marzilli's sacrifice fly made it 8-0 and USC could relax.
Webb exited, Hunter Privette entered and shut the Bulldogs down. USC got everything it wanted - offense, stellar relief and another masterful performance from its starting pitcher, which answered questions about his future.
Belcher, who missed the entire 2011 season with Tommy John surgery and had a foot injury in the fall, sparkled. He was in control and didn't get flustered, meaning he could be a midweek starter going forward (although Adam Westmoreland has seemingly clinched that spot) and also a left-handed relief option on the weekends.
"I'll do whatever the coaches want me to do," Belcher said. "Get a lefty, pitch midweek, spot starts. If that's ride the bench, I'll ride the bench. As long as we're winning."
"He's had some good innings for us," Tanner said. "Hasn't had as many opportunities. He's a guy that's sort of been in the middle for us. He's been feeling really, really good."
Belcher discussed the long road back from Tommy John and the rehab, the pain of missing another national championship run - Belcher was on the trip to Omaha in 2010, but did not play - and realized it was all for this. It was just one game, but Belcher could have been feeling a lot worse.
"Nolan gives you a chance to go long," Tanner said. "Be a long guy, middle guy. Just got to pitch him to help us win. That's the bottom line."
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