Nolan Belcher leads No. 10 South Carolina to 8-0 win over The Citadel
COLUMBIA — As a high school pitcher in Augusta, Ga., Nolan Belcher was virtually unhittable. He finished his career with a 47-2 record and 516 strikeouts in 282 innings, and a nickname to match: The Little Unit, a play on the nickname of another dominant left-hander, Randy Johnson.
But what made Belcher so impressive is that he was, and is, indeed little, and not just in comparison to the 6-10 Johnson. Belcher — all 5-8 and 155 pounds of him — rolled into Columbia in 2009 and grabbed the Saturday starting position in South Carolina’s rotation.
He was not unhittable by any means, with a 4-5 record and a 5.33 ERA, but he did have 11 strikeouts in 61/3 innings at Georgia. As a sophomore, he sputtered and lost the starting role. Then, in a preseason practice before his junior season, he felt a pop in his elbow after throwing a slider. He tried to ignore it and threw two more pitches. “The pain was just unbearable,” he said. “It felt like somebody was sticking a knife in my elbow.”
A little more than a year later — and nearly two years after his last start, in May 2010 — Belcher on Tuesday put his once-reliable left arm to its sternest test since Tommy John ligament replacement surgery ended his 2011 season before it began.
He passed the test brilliantly, leading No. 10 South Carolina (24-9) to an 8-0 win over The Citadel by throwing 52/3 innings, allowing three hits, striking out seven batters and walking one.
Grayson Greiner’s grand slam highlighted a six-run seventh inning to allow the Gamecocks to pull away. Tanner English and Christian Walker had three hits apiece.
Mason Davis had two of five hits for The Citadel (13-20).
From the get-go, Belcher looked like that high school kid from Augusta again, as six of his first 13 outs came via strikeout.
Belcher had thrown 12 innings in 10 relief appearances this season, with a 2.25 ERA entering Tuesday, but only twice had he pitched more than one inning — 21/3 against Presbyterian and 42/3 against Florida. Pitching coach Jerry Meyers wanted Belcher to throw 75 pitches on Tuesday, and Meyers let him go even beyond that, to 86.
“Each time I get back out there I feel better and better,” Belcher said. “I feel like my arm is getting stronger. I think each time I’m getting more and more confident.”
Baseball people like to say Tommy John surgery is like “getting a new elbow.” But a pitcher must pay mightily for it, with hours upon hours of brutal rehabilitation.
“Twelve months of hell, basically,” Belcher said.
Because your arm is essentially stuck in an “L” position after the surgery, rehab includes having bands tied to your arm and trainers stretching it mercilessly to increase flexibility.
“The pain is just as bad as when you first hurt it,” Belcher said.
Throughout this season’s first half, he began to feel so good that he decided to volunteer himself to bring the Gamecocks some much-needed energy. He mentioned his idea to teammates, and sure enough, in the pregame huddle late last month at Vanderbilt, he did a back flip. He originally learned a back handspring as a 5-year-old, during gymnastics lessons. He later tried back-flipping on a trampoline and off a diving board.
“When I got stupid enough, I tried it off the ground,” he said. “I’ve been able to do it for a long time.”
But he didn’t want to take any risks Tuesday, so he passed the pregame back-flip duties on to left fielder English, who might have to get used to doing it before midweek games. USC needs a midweek starter now that Jordan Montgomery has taken the Saturday spot, replacing Matt Price, who is closing again. Or maybe coach Ray Tanner might work Belcher in to the weekend middle relief rotation with lefty Tyler Webb.
“We’ll use him on the weekend in conference play if he’s not starting,” Tanner said. “That’s for sure. I think Nolan gives you a chance to go long if you don’t get any distance out of your starters.”