COLUMBIA -- One is a former starter now angling for an equally important role. Another feels 100 percent healthy for the first time in years. And a third key member of South Carolina's bullpen is a guy who was forced to follow the team from afar last season.
As the Gamecocks prepare for their second series of 2012, this weekend against Elon, coach Ray Tanner is trying to sort out his bullpen personnel and waiting to see what's the next step in the storylines of sophomore Forrest Koumas, junior Tyler Webb and junior Ethan Carter.
All three made one appearance last weekend against Virginia Military Institute, and none allowed a run. Koumas threw two-thirds of an inning and earned a save, Webb 2 1/3 innings with four strikeouts, and Carter four innings with six strikeouts.
Tanner expects to need about 15 games to determine the roles in his bullpen, and find a replacement for last year's closer, Matt Price, who is now the No. 2 starter. For all the uncertainty right now in USC's bullpen, Tanner knows one thing for sure.
"I think a lot of teams can be pretty good up front (with their starters), but the key to really having a good team is how good you can be from the sixth and seventh (innings) to the end," he said.
Koumas started 12 of his 19 appearances last season, had a 2.96 ERA and impressed with a quality start in Game 1 of the College World Series finals against Florida, by allowing one run and three hits, and striking out four batters in 5 2/3 innings.
But Price is USC's second-best arm, behind Michael Roth, and Tanner wanted to get more innings out of him. So Koumas moved from starter to reliever - a job Tanner believes fits his bulldog demeanor, something Tanner first noticed while recruiting Koumas and watching him take a pounding as an option quarterback for his high school team.
"You're talking about a short relief stint, and he can come at you on every pitch," Tanner said. "It's a little bit more difficult to do that as a starter."
Said Koumas: "I guess I kind of get mad easily. I come in a little ticked off, and maybe I throw a little harder. If I make a bad pitch, I'm kind of talking to myself in my head."
While Koumas is a barrel-chested 5-10 right-hander who said he still misses football, Webb is a 6-6 beanpole lefty. But like Koumas, Webb has been tested under pressure. Two years ago, he threw a scoreless third of an inning in the World Series-clinching victory over UCLA. Last year, he entered in Game 1 of the finals against Florida and didn't allow a run in 2 1/3 innings.
Webb had a 3.00 ERA in 36 innings last season despite not being able to completely straighten his left arm, because of bone spurs that developed after he underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow as a high school junior. Webb had the bone spurs surgically removed in July.
"Probably the biggest thing (the bone spurs) affected was finishing pitches, following through," Webb said. "The range of motion would be different from day to day, so it was hard to kind of get a good release point when how straight your arm goes changes from day to day."
Carter knows change well. As a freshman righty on a partial scholarship in 2010, he threw 1 1/3 innings in the Super Regional against Coastal Carolina and earned the win. After USC won the 2010 World Series, he said he and his teammates "talked all summer and all fall about how we wanted to do it again." Then Carter was kicked off the team in January 2011 for an unspecified violation of team rules.
"I felt like I put myself in position to be a big part of that (2011) team," he said. "Then I put myself in a position not to be on that team. I felt like I let the guys down more than I let myself down."
He spent last season at Louisburg (N.C.) College, a junior college. He tracked USC's run to a second straight national title so closely that during games he wasn't pitching, he went to the locker room and checked scores on his phone. After not being drafted, he happily returned to USC as a walk-on, hoping to claim a valuable role in a bullpen that needs answers.
"I would've loved to have been drafted," Carter said. "I would have loved to have started my pro career this year. But all along, there wasn't any other college I really wanted to play for if I was coming back to college."