In a season of inconsistency, South Carolina has at least been relieved to see that one part of its game never changed. Through 57 games, rain or shine, hot or cold, Georgia or Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks always, always knew who they would turn to with a seventh- or eighth-inning lead.
Setup southpaw Adam Westmoreland would come in during the later innings and hold the opponent at bay, and closer Tyler Webb would finish it in the ninth. It was so routine that everybody quit bothering to look up if pitching coach Jerry Meyers went to the mound after the sixth with a lead - the duo has collectively been the team MVP this season with late-inning heroics. Webb tied for the SEC lead with 16 saves (one more than SEC tournament MVP Chris Cotton), struck out 52 batters in 36 1-3 innings and recorded an ERA of 1.24. Westmoreland went 7-3 with 57 strikeouts, recording an ERA of 2.05 in 57 innings, by far the most of any USC reliever who hasn't started a game this season.
As the postseason dawns, USC knows what its plan will be with a late-inning lead.
It's hoping the plan will still hold up after the two have spent the past three weeks still getting the job done for the most part, but not looking nearly as invincible as they once did.
Hits through gaps and runs across the plate are occurring with startling frequency these days, although each pitcher has come into some nasty situations. Westmoreland took both losses in the Gamecocks' two-game stay at the SEC tournament, Webb inheriting jams and unable to wiggle out of them, and Webb was also pounded for four hits and three runs in a blown save at Mississippi State on May 16 (a showing that will go down as one of the best and worst days of his career, as he became the Gamecocks' all-time appearance leader).
Even Mariano Rivera blows a save now and again, and occasionally does it in spectacular fashion. But it's definitely not what USC wants to see as the win-or-go-home scenario is stapled to nearly every game from here on out.
"I know myself, I've had a pretty good run of balls finding the glove instead of the hole, so maybe that's catching up with me a little bit down the stretch," Webb said on Wednesday. "Hopefully I got that out of the way and the ball will start finding a couple more gloves. I think it's just baseball. Every once in a while, they just squeak through. It's just how the game is."
Coach Chad Holbrook has no plans to change his rotation. There's really no other choice to make - Westmoreland became the top setup man (25 appearances) because nobody else in the bullpen could get the job done. While the relievers have done far better of late (Colby Holmes, Patrick Sullivan and Vince Fiori have given the Gamecocks more options), all but the last month of the season was a two-man crew of Westmoreland and Webb. For the great, great majority of those games, the two have gotten the job done.
"Did they hit a speedbump? Yeah, we may have," Holbrook said on Monday. "Maybe it's because we've had to call on them about every dadgum game. Now that we get about a week and some time off, a little bit of rest, have some background work and some short bullpens, I feel they'll be fresh and ready to go this weekend."
Holbrook is hoping that the speedbump was the storm before a calm drive, not the pothole-bedecked stretch the two have recently traveled.
Against Presbyterian on May 14, Webb was summoned in a 4-2 game after Sullivan had given up a leadoff double. Webb got the first two outs with no trouble, then gave up an RBI single to ninth hitter Ryan Hagan. He struck out leadoff man Jay Lizanich to end the threat.
With USC holding a 4-1 lead at Mississippi State on May 16, Westmoreland relieved Nolan Belcher with two men on and one out. Westmoreland walked Alex Detz to bring up the dangerous Hunter Renfroe with the bases loaded, but struck out Renfroe and then watched third baseman Chase Vergason stab a smash from Brett Pirtle and step on the bag.
The harm over, Westmoreland was ready to pitch the eighth with Webb on call if trouble arose. It immediately did, as Wes Rea launched a leadoff solo home run to make it 4-2. Webb entered, gave up a single but then got Derrick Armstrong to pop out. Then the next three Bulldogs singled, before a wild pitch and an intentional walk, to tie the game. Webb walked in Pirtle with the game-winning run.
Severely torqued that he'd given away a game that USC needed, Webb was at his unflappable best the very next night. After Westmoreland left the bases loaded in the ninth to send the game to extra innings (Westmoreland plunked a batter to load the bags), Webb came in with a 5-3 lead in the 10th thanks to Grayson Greiner's moonshot home run. He recorded three outs and the save on nine pitches.
Against MSU in the SEC tournament, Westmoreland took a 3-3 game to the ninth and gave up two singles before recording a pop-up. He then walked Pirtle to load the bases and Webb relieved.
Webb gave up an RBI single to Rea, before Detz was out on a suicide squeeze play gone awry. But Demarcus Henderson hit another RBI single to make it 5-3, and Webb walked Daryl Norris before Armstrong hit a ground ball to third that ruled him out on runner's interference.
Against Vanderbilt the next day, USC battled back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game in the seventh. Westmoreland threw one pitch to record a double play and get out of the ninth, but his first pitch in the 10th was smacked into right field by Tony Kemp. Sullivan relieved, gave up another single, and Webb came on. He struck out Mike Yastrzemski, then intentionally walked Connor Harrell to load the bases. Conrad Gregor hit a ground ball toward right that was ruled a hit as the runner slammed into second baseman Max Schrock to win the game.
Some bad situations that anyone would have struggled to get out of, and some situations that were controllable, yet weren't controlled. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt aren't bad teams, either, the Bulldogs protecting the plate by fouling off two-strike pitches and the Commodores just an outstanding squad.
Whatever the case, Westmoreland and Webb haven't been their usual dominant selves. Then again, that was then and a chance for redemption is just over the horizon.
"I don't think it's a long season or anything like that," Westmoreland said on Wednesday. "You try to go out as long as you can and we played against Vandy, and some really, really good teams. Any mistakes you make, they're going to exploit them."
"I have the utmost confidence in those guys," Holbrook said. "I hope like crazy we can turn the ball over to them Friday night with the lead, and I'll still feel good about our chances."