COLUMBIA – The silver necklace hung around Colby Holmes’ neck, with a cross dangling off the chain, resting on the front of Holmes’ South Carolina practice jersey. Inscribed on the cross: “PHIL 4:13.” Holmes, the son of a Baptist minister, likes being reminded of this Bible verse from Philippians: “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
As USC begins the second half of its Southeastern Conference schedule tonight against Kentucky, Holmes is trying to gather the mental and physical resolve to turn his senior season around, and to help the Gamecocks (28-10, 8-7 SEC) finish strong as they aim to earn hosting rights for an NCAA tournament Regional.
Holmes was a weekend starting pitcher for most of the past two seasons, and began this season as USC’s No. 2 starter. Three consecutive poor starts last month – 11 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings – bounced him from the rotation. He followed it with four outings that typified his inconsistent season: a strong start at the College of Charleston, a poor start against Charleston Southern, an encouraging relief appearance at Tennessee and a messy start at Florida.
This has been a baffling year for Holmes, who last season had a 3.05 earned-run average, 65 strikeouts and 17 walks, following a 2011 season of 3.69, 77 and 21.
“It’s weird, but it happens to everybody,” Holmes said. “You can’t be perfect every time. I’ve got faith that I’m going to have a better second half of the season.”
The Gamecocks cannot afford for him to continue slipping. They simply don’t have enough other healthy pitchers performing well enough right now.
An elbow muscle strain sidelined closer Tyler Webb for last weekend’s series at Florida, and USC won’t know until today if it will have him for the Kentucky series. With Evan Beal and Forrest Koumas enduring even worse seasons than Holmes, whose ERA is 4.39, coach Chad Holbrook is planning on using Holmes to close if Webb can’t.
Though Holmes is not out of consideration for weekend starting, Holbrook prefers to use Jack Wynkoop in his No. 3 spot. At this point, Holbrook wants to see if Holmes can find himself while throwing shorter relief stints. He closed Tuesday’s win over the College of Charleston and allowed two hits and a run in an inning, but Holbrook turned to him just three days after his 1 2/3-inning start at Florida. Holmes said he will be fresh enough to close tonight.
When Holmes struggled this season, his problem was simple: His pitches sailed too high in the strike zone, making them easier to hit. Some pitchers can get away with leaving the ball up, because they have an overpowering fastball or knee-buckling slider. But Holmes’ stuff, as coaches call it, is just not dominant enough for him to consistently miss his target.
Holmes said he must focus on “staying on top of the ball,” which means following through over his front leg during his delivery, to force the ball downward as it leaves his hand. This is not the first time Holmes’ inconsistent delivery has resulted in his pitches staying up in the zone.
“He went through a stretch last year where he had something similar,” said pitching coach Jerry Meyers. “He made an adjustment at a point last year where it helped him get his back side through (in his delivery) a little bit better, which helped him get on a downward plane. You’re talking about a very fine line of percentage of weight out front, or your arm being a little bit late.”
Meyers said Holmes’ lack of a downward plane in his three straight poor starts resulted in inconsistent fastball control. For pitchers like Holmes, too many hittable fastballs mean too many early exits from starts. But Holmes has shown Meyers enough glimpses to stay relevant.
“Are we getting what we need to get out of him up to this point?” Meyers said. “We’re getting something. He’s still a potential starter for us, based on what we use in our pen.”
Holbrook hopes that using Holmes in relief, potentially even when Webb returns, will result in Holmes pitching more aggressively, because he doesn’t have to pace himself like he would for a start. In relief, Holmes should throw harder fastballs more likely to stay down. Holmes said his velocity while closing Tuesday was 91 to 92 mph, compared to 88 to 90 during starts.
“Having that short stint, it just lets me go out there and let it ride,” he said.