When Colby Holmes jubilantly sauntered off the mound after securing the last out in Sunday's 19-2 romp past Tennessee - the final nail in an impressive five-inning stint that wrapped up a three-game sweep of the overmatched Vols - the question arose of whether the senior right-hander had done enough to earn another chance in the weekend rotation.
The answer may indeed be yes.
After struggling in three consecutive appearances over a 15-day stretch in early March (Clemson, Rider and Missouri), Holmes has experienced a renaissance of sorts in his last three starts, culminating with his outing in Knoxville when he allowed just two hits and two runs in five innings while striking out three and walking none in improving his season record to 4-2.
When Holmes lasted only 1.1 innings on March 16 at Missouri (three hits and three runs), the Conway native was yanked from the weekend rotation and Evan Beal was inserted in his place.
Ten days elapsed before Holmes took the mound again with a start at College of Charleston on March 26. The right-hander held the Cougars offense in check for 7.1 innings in USC's 3-1 victory, limiting Charleston to four hits while striking out eight and walking two. He followed up with an encouraging performance against Charleston Southern (3.1 IP, four hits, two runs, two strikeouts, no walks) before returning to the SEC wars in Knoxville.
The key to Holmes' turnaround? Easy. He's back to throwing strikes. In his three starts in early Match, he walked 10 batters in 10.1 innings. But over his last three appearances, he has walked only two opposing hitters in 17.2 innings with 13 strikeouts.
"Colby has looked like Colby," USC head coach Chad Holbrook said Monday on 107.5 FM The Game. "He's been very aggressive and has pitched like he has something to prove. He has pitched down in the strike zone. We knew going into the (final game at Tennessee) that Colby was going to have to pitch well if we were going to win it. We didn't count on getting 19 runs, but even if we had gotten just five we would have won. It was good to see."
While Holmes is trending upward, Beal seems headed in the opposite direction. In his last three starts against Arkansas, Texas A&M and Tennessee, he has failed to get out of the fourth inning and has allowed 12 runs (all earned) on 14 hits in nine combined innings of work.
"He's a much better pitcher than what he showed on Saturday (at Tennessee)," Holbrook said. "We have to make sure we put him in the right spot so he can be dominant. We can help Evan a little bit. He didn't ask to be a starter after what happened to Jordan (Montgomery). I don't know if that's the best spot for Evan, even though he's shown he can do it. He's awfully tough when he comes out of the bullpen, too.
"Coach (Jerry) Meyers and I will have to sit down and talk about a few things about how we're going to schedule the weekend. Evan is a big part of our pitching staff. He has as good stuff as anybody on our team. He can by a high draft pick and an All-SEC type guy. He just has to throw strikes."
Nine walks in that span, including four in two innings at Tennessee last Saturday, have hurt Beal too. His recent glitches have ballooned his ERA to 4.68 in 25 innings after starting the year strongly.
"Evan has struggled from time to time with his command," Holbrook said. "When he commands the strike zone, he is awfully good and can beat anybody. But when he's his own worst enemy and gives people free passes, he feels he has to lay one in there and possibly give up a big hit. He's fighting that a little bit.
Settling on weekend rotation is important because USC faces a brutal SEC slate over the next month. Following this week's trip to Gainesville, the Gamecocks sandwich home series against Kentucky (No. 13 in latest Baseball America poll) and Vanderbilt (No. 2) around a long road trip to Baton Rouge to face No. 3 LSU.
Those three series will test the Gamecocks in every aspects, particularly on the mound. LSU (.317) and Vanderbilt (.296) possess the top two team batting averages in the SEC at the moment, while Kentucky is eighth (.278). The highly-ranked Commodores (2.42) and Bayou Bengals (2.44) are also second and third in team ERA in the SEC, while Kentucky is eighth at 3.00.
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