COLUMBIA — When Carolina Stadium’s bullpen door swung open last Friday afternoon, the difference was immediately obvious. Instead of the bouncy instrumental theme song to “The Price Is Right,” the stadium speakers played the powerful guitar riffs and Scott Weiland’s growling vocals from the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Dead & Bloated.”
Not that Tyler Webb, the new South Carolina closer who emerged from the bullpen, is any more aggressive than his predecessor, Matt Price. Far from it. Webb speaks with the same unexcitable steadiness as he pitches — an important trait for someone taking over for Price, the Southeastern Conference’s career saves leader.
But Webb and Price are not the same, and that’s fine with USC coach Chad Holbrook, who believes Webb can be an effective closer, too. Webb, a 6-6 junior left-hander, is not new to high pressure moments, having shined in the College World Series the past three seasons as a middle reliever.
“I don’t think his stuff is as dominating, necessarily, as a Matt Price,” Holbrook said. “It’s not fair to compare Matt Price and Tyler Webb. Tyler is very effective in his own right. His numbers, I’ll put up against anybody’s.”
Price was USC’s closer the past three seasons, then was drafted in the seventh round by Baltimore and turned pro. He had 43 career saves. While leading USC to two national titles and a runner-up finish from 2010-12, he had a 2.62 earned-run average, 252 strikeouts and 70 walks.
During that same time, Webb had a 2.63 ERA, 122 strikeouts and 48 walks in 78 appearances, including an impressive 2012 season — 1.56 ERA, 58 strikeouts and 18 walks in 39 appearances.
Webb has made eight appearances in the College World Series, all in relief. His numbers are absurd: 15 innings, six hits, zero runs, six walks and 10 strikeouts. He pitched in four games last season in Omaha and allowed five hits and four walks in 102/3 innings, while striking out eight.
While debuting as the closer last weekend against Liberty, Webb threw two hitless and scoreless innings over two games, struck out three and walked two. In Friday’s season opener, he earned a five-out save after entering with a two-run lead and runners on second and third. It was an ideal start for Webb as he tries to carve out his own identity as the closer.
Though the season is young, it appears No. 7 USC might have to again lean on pitching. The Gamecocks hit .265 last season, after .294 in 2011, and no longer have the leading hitter from those two teams, Christian Walker. In three games against Liberty, they hit .210.
USC’s starters — Jordan Montgomery, Colby Holmes and Nolan Belcher — acquitted themselves well last weekend. They combined for 18 innings, 12 hits, five earned runs, five walks and 18 strikeouts. But questions remain about the middle relief, Webb’s old spot, as four of the primary candidates for those innings were so-so on opening weekend: Forrest Koumas, Jack Wynkoop, Joel Seddon and Evan Beal.
USC has four games to work out the kinks, including a three-game home series against Albany that starts today, before its traveling series with Clemson on March 1-3. If middle relief issues remain, perhaps the starters and Webb will both need to throw longer.
Webb has already shouldered an innings workload typical of a closer. He threw 571/3 last season. When Price was exclusively a closer in 2010 and 2011, he threw 552/3 and 59. USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers felt encouraged by what he saw late last season from Webb, who had never pitched more than 36 innings in a college season before 2012.
“He has a fastball that jumps a little bit,” Meyers said. “At the end of the year last year, his velocity picked up. He’s always around 90 and has been as high as 94. He’s got some deception to (his fastball). He kind of hides it a little bit (during his windup).”
While Webb was Meyers’ most obvious option to replace Price, USC did have a starting rotation spot open. Despite Webb’s impressive stats, he has started just 12 career games, and none since April 2011. That’s OK with Webb, who thinks the bullpen better fits his demeanor than starting.
“The buildup every week isn’t there,” he said. “As a starter, you’re waiting all week to get your one shot, then you’re here like four hours before (the game), and you’re just sitting around and no one is there with you. In the pen, you’re just down there and you’re hanging out with the guys. The phone rings, your number is called and you just go out there and throw. You don’t have all the time to worry about ‘I hope I throw good today’ or anything like that.”