Even though the third game of last weekend's three-sweep over VMI produced a lopsided victory for South Carolina, the Gamecocks' pitching staff was forced to pitch under pressure for most of the weekend.
In the first 21 innings of the series (Games 1 and 2, plus the first three innings of Game 3), the largest lead for either team was two runs. For the majority of those innings, the gap was one run or less.
In other words, USC's hurlers were required to pitch under pressure for most of the weekend. Only when the Gamecocks erupted for seven runs in the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 3 did the pressure ease a bit.
Eleven of USC's 16 pitchers took the mound for the Gamecocks in the three-game series against VMI.
Realizing the SEC schedule will be full of close, hard-fought games, USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers appreciated the fact that his group had to pitch with the outcome on the line.
"That was a really good step forward for that first weekend," Meyers said Monday on the "Inside the Roost" program on 107.5 The Game>. "And we had to pitch in close games for the majority of those innings. That's a good indicator of how you're going to respond when you can't make a mistake and you have to really stay locked in with what you're doing pitching-wise and defensively throughout the game. We responded pretty well to that having played the first 20 or 21 innings in a really nip-and-tuck manner."
Even though they encountered some difficult stretches - not unexpected for the first start of the year - USC's starting pitchers all lasted at least five innings. Michael Roth (six innings) and Matt Price (five innings; faced four batters in sixth) threw 89 pitches apiece, while Colby Holmes lasted five innings in the 13-1 rout, throwing 62 pitches, 41 for strikes. The junior from Conway didn't walk a batter while striking out six and allowing just one hit, an impressive display of pinpoint pitching for the first outing of the year.
"Roth anchors the whole staff and tries to get us off to a good start and set the tone. He did that on Friday," Meyers said. "We got quality starts out of all three of our starters. Colby Holmes got us off to a good start in the final game."
Left-hander Tyler Webb replaced Roth on the mound in the seventh inning of Game 1 and limited VMI to one hit over the ensuing 2 1-3 innings before he gave way to Forrest Koumas for the final two outs. Koumas threw just seven pitches in recording his first save of the season, and his first appearance as USC's closer.
When Webb entered the contest, the score was tied at 1. The winning run in the 2-1 game didn't score until the bottom of the eighth inning, handing Webb the victory.
"Tyler Webb held us right where we needed to be and got the win," Meyers said. "Tyler has pitched in Omaha the last two years and has some experience. He was very good out of the bullpen for us down the stretch last season."
Price made his second career start in Game 2 as he began the transition from dominant closer to weekend starter.
"He's in great shape, both arm-wise and physically," Meyers said. "He has probably conditioned a little bit differently than he would typically need to as the closer. But in the back of his mind, he's always been a starter. He was excellent for five innings. He hit his pitch benchmark in the sixth."
In Game 2, junior right-hander Ethan Carter faced just one batter over the minimum in hurling the final four innings of USC's 3-2 victory. Wearing the garnet and black for the first time since 2010, 32 of Carter's 42 pitches were strikes.
"He gave us four very good innings," Meyers said. "He got out of a jam for the most part and played damage control. He gave three more good innings after that and gave us an opportunity to win the game, which we did."
After Holmes exited Game 3, all five of the relief pitchers took the mound for the first time as Gamecocks, starting with promising freshman Evan Beal (one inning, one strikeout) and continuing with submariner Hunter Privette (three strikeouts in the seventh), true freshman Jordan Montgomery, redshirt freshman Drake Thomason and true freshman Joel Seddon.
"Those guys were pitching in a Carolina uniform for the first time, so they got a taste of it," Meyers said.
Veterans Nolan Belcher, Adam Westmoreland and Patrick Sullivan didn't pitch in the series. Meyers suggested that had Game 3 been tighter, those three would have likely pitched. Instead, with USC holding an eight-run lead after four innings, Meyers elected to use his younger, less experienced pitchers.
"We were able to get the younger guys in once we broke that game open in Game 3. That was fortunate," Meyers said.
Belcher and Westmoreland are candidates to start midweek games, but that decision won't have to be made until next week (Feb. 28), when USC plays its first midweek game against Presbyterian.
"We're trying to sort it out," Meyers said. "Hopefully, from what we saw this past weekend, we'll have some options. We want to look at this way - who are the crucial guys we need to have out of the bullpen on the weekends? When we get to the midweek games, we'll determine who pitches when we get through the weekend. Whether or not we set aside a guy and say he's going on Tuesday (or Wednesday) or we get through the weekend by saying these two guys are available and who is our smartest choice against our midweek competition."
Belcher's initial trip to the mound in 2012 will mark his first appearance for USC since 2010. He underwent Tommy John surgery a year ago, missing the entire 2011 season and enduring a strenuous rehab process.
"Nolan has done a great job rehabbing. He was worked extremely hard," Meyers said. "He is full-speed right now and has been for almost two months. His mound approach, aggressiveness and command have all been surprisingly good. He feels very good and his stuff looks good. He does have SEC experience, albeit two years ago and his freshman season in 2009 has been probably his best year since he's been here. I think he is chomping at the bit ready to go."
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