COLUMBIA — The bad news for South Carolina’s baseball team is that it almost certainly will not have its Sunday starting pitcher, Colby Holmes, for this weekend’s games at Georgia — the penultimate series of the regular season for the Gamecocks.
Holmes continues to recover from a sore shoulder, which he injured two weeks ago while stretching during practice. USC coach Ray Tanner said after Wednesday’s win over Furman that he planned to have Holmes throw a bullpen session Thursday before USC left for Georgia, but Holmes would probably still miss his third consecutive start.
The good news for USC is that almost everything that has happened over the past month or so leaves Tanner still feeling optimistic about the status of his pitching staff, for this weekend and the upcoming NCAA tournament.
It’s been just more than a month since Tanner settled on freshman Jordan Montgomery as his new Saturday starter, replacing closer-turned-starter-turned-closer Matt Price.
Montgomery convinced everybody with an eight-inning, three-hit, one-run performance April 7 against Tennessee, ending the search for Price’s replacement in the rotation. Montgomery has a 4-1 record, 3.98 earned-run average and outstanding control numbers — 37 strikeouts, six walks.
So, too, does junior Tyler Webb, who has turned into a valuable set-up man for Price, with a 1.82 ERA, 35 strikeouts and eight walks in 342/3 innings. It will be interesting to see how he handles his workload from this point forward, as he is approaching his innings maximum from the past two seasons — 361/3 as a freshman, 36 as a sophomore.
Perhaps most encouraging for Tanner was sophomore Forrest Koumas’ effort in Sunday’s win at Arkansas. He had thrown an inning in the middle of last week, against Davidson. But before that, he hadn’t pitched since March 31, because of elbow soreness. When he took the mound Sunday, Tanner expected to get maybe two or three innings out of him.
But Koumas showed no ill effects of the layoff and allowed just five hits and no runs in 51/3 innings, giving Tanner a reliable starting option while Holmes recovers — and another late-inning reliever for the postseason.
Pitching has been USC’s strength all season. The Gamecocks have a 3.18 team ERA and opponents are hitting just .220 against them. Increasingly in recent years, the WHIP statistic (walks plus hits per innings pitched) has been used as a measure of a pitching staff’s efficiency. The NCAA now tracks the stat, and as of Sunday’s games, USC ranked fourth nationally (1.15). That number dropped to 1.14 after the Furman win.
“A large majority of the time, our pitching staff has given us a chance to win,” Tanner said. “We might have improved our depth a little bit in the last few weeks. I was just tremendously impressed with what Forrest Koumas did Sunday at Arkansas.”
Georgia’s starter tonight, third-year sophomore Alex Wood, is one of the Southeastern Conference’s elite pitchers and “has risen on the (Major League Baseball) draft charts,” Tanner said. Wood is the type of long left-hander that scouts love — 6-4 and 220 pounds. He is 6-1 this season with a 2.64 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 19 walks and a 1.15 WHIP.
Of course, USC will counter with ace Michael Roth (0.99 WHIP) and an offense that most recently performed well against two highly regarded pro prospects at Arkansas — Ryne Stanek on Friday (six hits and five runs in five innings) and DJ Baxendale on Sunday (five hits and four runs in seven innings).
With six SEC games remaining — including next weekend’s highly anticipated series against third-ranked LSU — the fourth-ranked Gamecocks (37-12, 16-8 SEC) continue to remain in contention for one of the eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament, which would let them host both a Regional and Super Regional, if they advance that far. As of Thursday, PerfectGame.org projected USC to receive the No. 7 seed.
“All that Regional host national seed stuff is really just speculation at this point,” Tanner said. “We’ve got to win some games. We haven’t won enough games to be secure.”