The last time Evan Beal took the mound for South Carolina was May 18, 2013, at Mississippi State.
Gamecock fans are going to have to wait at least three more weeks until the 6-foot-4 righthander is able to take the mound again.
Describing Beal's injury as a "stress reaction" in the back area, USC coach Chad Holbrook said Thursday the earliest Beal would probably return is the opening SEC series against Ole Miss from March 14-16 at Carolina Stadium.
"He'll be out indefinitely," Holbrook told reporters during a press conference previewing the upcoming Eastern Kentucky series. "We hope to get him back in three weeks, but it could be shorter, it could be longer. We'll get him reevaluated on a weekly basis."
Beal is 6-5 with a 4.18 ERA and five saves in 84.0 innings during his first two years in the USC program, including a 2-1 mark last season when he appeared in 13 games and hurled 32 innings. He started four SEC games a year ago against Missouri, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
His final start of the 2013 season came at Tennessee on April 6. After allowing two runs and walking four batters in 2.0 innings, he was sent to the bullpen and didn't make an appearance in the post-season.
Holbrook said Beal did not have a stress fracture in his back, an injury that would have shelved him for the season.
"He'll be OK and hopefully he'll be ready and healthy when Ole Miss comes to town in several weeks," Holbrook said. "That would probably be the best-case scenario. The protocol with the type of injury he has is he needs some rest.
"If we pitched him this weekend, which he could physically probably do, you run the risk of a stress fracture in which he would be out for the rest of the year. We need to let the stress reaction calm down, heal and give it a couple of weeks."
Holbrook emphasized the difference between being cleared by team doctors to pitch and being in shape to take the mound in an actual live game.
"We have to bring him back a little slowly. When he is cleared, I don't think he can go right into a game," Holbrook said. "He could be cleared next week or in 10 days. Getting him cleared and having him available for a game are two different things.
"It's not a serious injury and one that's going to keep him out the whole year. We hope to get him back for the start of SEC play. He's doing better. He's pain free when he walks around. But it's an injury that could get a lot worse if we're not careful with it. That's all I know at this point in time."
The last time Beal took the mound at Carolina Stadium was in a preseason scrimmage. However, the USC pitching staff hasn't skipped a beat, compiling an impressive 1.50 ERA in the first four games with two shutouts.
The last time the Gamecocks allowed a run to score was the third inning in Game 2 of last Saturday's doubleheader sweep over Bucknell. USC pitchers carry a 24-inning scoreless stretch into the Eastern Kentucky series.
USC pitchers have fanned 40 batters and walked nine in 36 innings pitched with opponents batting a lowly .194 against them.
Staying true to the adage, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' Holbrook plans to trot out the same rotation that overpowered Bucknell last weekend - Jordan Montgomery (Friday), Jack Wynkoop (Saturday) and Wil Crowe (Sunday).
Eastern Kentucky (1-3), which lost two of three at underrated Alabama State last weekend before dropping a 13-1 decision at Louisville Wednesday, plans to counter with three seniors on the mound. The Colonels have surrendered 32 runs during their current three-game losing streak.
"They have gotten off to a little bit of a slow start, but they have played some good teams," Holbrook said. "Louisville was Top 15 in the country in the preseason. Alabama State may not have the name recognition, but in coaching circles everybody knows how good they are from a talent standpoint. They went into Auburn last night and won a big game against an SEC team on the road."
-- Holbrook said he plans to continue rotating Joey Pankake and D.C. Arendas at third base, with Pankake and Elliott Caldwell sharing time in left field. Holbrook said he enjoys the lineup flexibility playing Pankake in left offers the Gamecocks. The daily lineup will likely depend on the opposing pitcher USC is facing that particular day. Holbrook said Pankake and Arendas should both see action at third against Eastern Kentucky.
-- Brent Cobb, Eastern Kentucky's Friday afternoon starter, allowed five hits and no runs in 6.1 innings at Alabama State. The Colonels won the opener, 8-2, before dropping the final two games.
-- Eastern Kentucky is a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Colonels advanced to the championship round of the OVC Tournament last May, knocking off top-seeded Tennessee tech along the way.
-- USC and Eastern Kentucky have met one time in 1982 when the Gamecocks posted an 11-3 victory in Columbia.