COLUMBIA — Rarely this season has South Carolina breathed easily in the final innings of a Southeastern Conference victory.
The Gamecocks’ 13 wins before Friday night were filled with tenuous moments, because of their poor hitting earlier in the season and their spotty middle relief pitching throughout it. With the exception of a 19-2 win at Tennessee, USC hadn’t won a league game by more than four runs. It had won four by two runs and three by one run, including an 11-inning game.
There was no white-knuckling late in Friday’s 7-2 win over Georgia, the league’s worst team. Georgia’s first batter hit a home run, but USC answered with two runs in the first, two in the third and three in the fifth, to go up 7-1 — more than enough cushion for starting pitcher Nolan Belcher, who dazzled again.
After the fifth, the only drama that remained was whether catcher Grayson Greiner would become the first USC player since 2004 to hit for a cycle. Greiner got one shot at the homer he needed, and took an eager cut at his first pitch in the sixth, but struck out on three pitches.
“I had never been in that position before (to get a cycle),” Greiner said. “So I told coach (Chad Holbrook) and I told everyone in the dugout that if I saw a fastball I was going to swing out of my shoes.”
No matter for USC (35-14, 14-10 SEC), which almost certainly must sweep the Bulldogs (18-29, 5-17) to keep hope alive of receiving a top eight national seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Gamecocks hit like they should against Georgia, whose 4.57 ERA in league play ranked second-worst in the league. Seven different Gamecocks drove in a run, including first baseman LB Dantzler, USC’s best hitter. He started at designated hitter after a dislocated left shoulder put his status in doubt. He has now reached base in 26 straight games.
More important Friday was Belcher, the pint-sized fifth-year senior left-hander, who righted himself after two spotty starts. Belcher threw 71/3 innings, allowed five hits and two runs, struck out eight and walked nobody. After surrendering the lead-off homer and a double to Georgia’s third batter, he retired 16 consecutive hitters.
“I think in my younger days I might have let that (leadoff homer) fluster me a little bit,” Belcher said.
Belcher had been spectacular for much of the season, but wasn’t in his previous two starts. At LSU, he allowed seven hits and four runs in 52/3 innings. Against Vanderbilt, he allowed six hits and three runs in six innings. He walked four batters at LSU. He began Friday having walked six total batters in his 11 other starts this season.
As the NCAA tournament approaches, Belcher’s extended start was important because setup man Adam Westmoreland and closer Tyler Webb are USC’s only consistent relievers. A lengthy start from Belcher in the first game of a regional or super regional could prove critical in preserving Westmoreland and Webb for the remainder of those rounds.
Holbrook swells with pride when he speaks about Belcher, and how he fought through elbow pain before undergoing Tommy John surgery, how he rehabbed diligently after missing 2011, and how this season he became the pitcher Holbrook always envisioned him being.
Belcher is 5-8, not ideal size for a professional pitcher, but few college baseball players have thrown better than him in 2013. His earned-run average is now 2.23. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is even more remarkable: 79 to 10.
“When people make fun of my height, I say, ‘Y’all should be happy I’m this short, because if I was six foot, they wouldn’t let me play,’” Belcher said. “That’s just a joke, though.”
He cracked a smile, and had every reason to. In his final regular season home start, Belcher exited to a standing ovation, the fans at once grateful for what he’s accomplished this season, and hopeful for more when the stakes are highest.
“I’m not really the emotional type,” Belcher said. “But if I was, I probably would be a little emotional.”