COLUMBIA — Perhaps no new member of South Carolina’s baseball team has been more interesting this season than Jack Wynkoop. The freshman almost immediately made coach Chad Holbrook talk about how USC fans will love watching him in the future.
Wynkoop looks the part of a prodigious pitcher — a left-hander with a lanky, 6-5 body. So far, he is playing the role well, too. In five appearances, with three starts, he has a 1.40 earned-run average, 13 strikeouts and three walks in 191/3 innings.
But he hasn’t tested himself against Southeastern Conference-level competition, because his appearances are against Liberty, Furman, Ball State, USC Upstate and The Citadel. This weekend, he might get a chance to face one of college baseball’s most talented teams.
To date, USC (18-3, 2-1 SEC) has played exactly one home game with significant buzz, aside from Opening Day — earlier this month against Clemson. This weekend, all three home games against Arkansas could delight with drama.
USC and Arkansas met six times last season. USC won two of three in the regular season and two of three in the College World Series. The Gamecocks fell to Arkansas in their second game in Omaha, then fought back and beat the Razorbacks on back-to-back days to make the championship series.
Arkansas returned enough talent to be ranked third in Baseball America’s preseason poll — four spots ahead of USC. Though the Razorbacks are 14-7 (1-2 SEC), they might boast the best starting rotation USC will see all season.
Not only are Barrett Astin, Ryne Stanek and Randall Fant all capable of being No. 1 starters, according to Holbrook, but Arkansas’ team ERA is 1.81. USC’s is 2.18, so this weekend could deliver close, low-scoring games.
Still, USC has questions about its rotation. For the third straight weekend, Evan Beal will start the first game. Nolan Belcher gets the second. Colby Holmes lost his spot to Belcher and was moved to the third game last weekend at Missouri, where Holmes was a disaster for the third straight start. In those starts, he allowed 11 earned in 101/3 innings.
Holbrook doesn’t know who will start Sunday. His options are Holmes and Wynkoop, who started Tuesday’s win at The Citadel, threw 70 pitches and allowed two runs in 51/3 innings.
Holbrook’s Sunday starter depends on whether he needs Holmes or Wynkoop to throw Saturday. But Wynkoop doesn’t mind not knowing his defined role before such a big series.
“I’m not really worried about it,” he said. “I don’t really think too much of it. I just wait for them to tell me what I’m going to do.”
Holbrook got a positive answer about his rotation this week, when an MRI on No. 1 starter Jordan Montgomery’s left elbow revealed that a bone stress reaction is healed. Montgomery will begin a throwing program Monday, but will still miss this series and the next, at home against Texas A&M. His projected return is April 5-7 at Tennessee, but Holbrook said there’s a chance he won’t be able to start until April 11-13 at Florida.
Still, Holbrook enters the Arkansas series with a couple big questions.
The first: Can Holmes overcome his recent struggles?
“Mechanically, he did have a few issues, we thought, against Clemson,” Holbrook said, referring to the first of Holmes’ three bad starts. “Those got ironed out. For whatever reason, he’s just pitched up in the zone a little bit more than he usually does, and his command hasn’t been there. He’s not one of those guys that’s going to blow you away with great stuff. If he doesn’t have great command, he’s going to struggle.”
The second, and most important: How will USC score runs against Arkansas’ talented arms?
“If we get a guy on first base, we’ve got to either run him, or we’ve got to hit and run, or we’ve got to use the sac bunt,” Holbrook said. “We’ve got to get guys in scoring position, because I don’t think you’re going to get three hits in a row against these guys.”