With the start of the 2012 season two days away, South Carolina pitching coach Jerry Meyers is still tinkering with the Gamecocks' pitching staff. Particularly, the bullpen.
The weekend rotation is set with Michael Roth, Matt Price and Colby Holmes preparing to take the mound against VMI this weekend. But who will pitch middle and long relief, or serve as the closer?
Meyers provided some answers on Tuesday concerning the back end of the staff in the wake of the loss of John Taylor and Price's move into the starting rotation.
"It's not unlike a lot of years when you open up," Meyers said on 107.5 M The Game. "When we started out last year, we didn't know John Taylor would be become a lock-down guy like he was and play such a big role. On top of that, our rotation ended up looking very different once we got to SEC play. After Florida (late March), it sorted itself out with a couple of players with tendonitis and nursing themselves back into the plan. We want to be as deep and versatile as we can be."
As one of the premier closers in college baseball the last two seasons, Price has started just one game in his career - March 31, 2009, at The Citadel. He suffered a season-ending wrist injury in that game and has pitched out of the bullpen since.
Because he is transitioning into a starter, Meyers hopes somebody else is able to step up and fill that all-important closer role.
Price had 20 of USC's 23 saves in 2011. Meyers envisions those numbers being more spread out among several hurlers this season.
"Matt Price being in the rotation changes the complexion of our bullpen," Meyers said. "The good news is we have some options. But we'll have to see what happens. In order to be very good, you have to have someone rise up and have a career kind of year. Hopefully, we'll have three or four guys carry the load and really make a difference in what the complexion of your staff ends up being.
"You don't have to have one guy with all the saves. Last year, John Taylor could have had several saves for us. But we had it lined up with his submarine style for Matt Price on many occasions. But you're rarely going to have that. Every year has a different makeup and roles will likely change from week-to-week."
The best bet for closer is sophomore Forrest Koumas, who started 12 games in 2011. But Meyers explained that Koumas possesses the type of pitches and proper mental makeup to handle the position.
"Forrest has not closed yet, but his stuff is suited for him," Meyers said. "But until he closes games out or contributes with other guys to get those final six to nine outs that are so hard to get, you have to see it happen. Once it does, you have to build on it and keep making it happen."
Along with Koumas, Meyers anticipates left-handers Tyler Webb and Nolan Belcher, and right-hander Patrick Sullivan could play pivotal roles coming out of the bullpen. And then there is a talented group of freshmen pitchers led by Evan Beal, a newcomer from Fairfax Station, Va.
"Hopefully, we'll have a trio of pitchers that can be setup guys." Meyers said. "A couple of young guys have thrown well, but we have to see if they can throw well for us when it's for real. It's about being able to handle adversity and the struggles and being able to come back the next day like nothing happened. You have to come back and get it done the next day."
Webb showed flashes of his potential last season, especially in Omaha when he made a key relief appearance in the 2-1 win over Florida in Game 1 of the national championship series. Webb did not allow a run in 2 1-3 innings. Overall, he finished with a 3-1 mark and 3.00 ERA in 36 innings.
He was part of the weekend rotation for the first four weeks of the 2011 season before settling into a role out of the bullpen.
"Webb threw well for us down the stretch," Meyers said. "We probably would have leaned on him a little bit more if John Taylor hadn't been able to eat up as many innings as he did. Based on his workouts in the fall and preseason, he's throwing the ball pretty well right now. I'm looking for him to factor in. He's been around a little bit and he's pitched in Omaha a couple of times and been in SEC games. He has good stuff and he's a big left-hander that we need to be solid for us."
Belcher, meanwhile, is attempting to bounce back from Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. Prior to that, he battled control problems in 2009 and 2010. In 112 1-3 career innings, Belcher has walked 59 batters, an exceptionally high number for a guy who displayed pinpoint control in high school.
"His command really got away from him a little bit in his sophomore year," Meyers said. "Then he had a forearm problem, which was possibly a prelude to what happened last year. After sitting out, he's feeling pretty good now. He has been ultra-competitive in his intrasquads (scrimmages). He has been chomping at the bit to get back out there. He has looked good. Hopefully, we'll be able to keep him healthy and he'll be a guy that factors in."
Koumas was 6-1 with a 2.96 ERA in 73 innings as a true freshman last season. Is there another young pitcher on the horizon able to post those kinds of numbers? Meyers thinks so.
Among the veterans looking to make a greater contribution is left-hander Logan Munson, a fifth-year senior who had a disappointing 2011 season after transferring from North Carolina.
"He looks a lot better right now," Meyers said. "He's worked hard."
The list of candidates to emerge as solid contributors in their freshmen campaigns are Beal, right-hander Joel Seddon (St. Clair, Mich.), lefty Jordan Montgomery (Sumter) and lefty Vince Fiori (Ramsey, N.J.).
"What we don't know is who is going to get the hot hand or who is going to be consistent," Meyers said. "We hope it's not just a revolving door of opportunities."
All four newcomers have been impressive at times during the weekend scrimmages in preseason camp. But the next time most of those guys take the mound, it could be in a game in front of a large crowd at Carolina Stadium.
"We have a good mix of young and old. We have at least four or five freshmen that are very capable," Meyers said. "You just don't know who is going to pop up because we have some capable guys. The timing has to be right for the opportunities they get and they have to make the most of them.
"Hopefully, we'll have 14 or 15 options on our pitching staff. If you can go as deep as anyone you play when you get into a three-game set, it has to work to your advantage. You hope you don't taper off when you start going eight or nine-deep on a weekend."
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