OMAHA, Neb. — Near the end of South Carolina’s practice Sunday afternoon at Creighton University, Colby Holmes hopped on an oversized tricycle and pedaled for about 10 feet in front of a dugout. A rag ball attached to a string dangled from his neck. It was a madcap scene, this scruffy-faced, stocky 21-year-old teetering on a tricycle seat, acting half his age, pedaling something designed for someone half his size.
Holmes spotted the tricycle in a storage garage at the field during last year’s College World Series. When he came across it again Sunday, “I decided to hop on and have some fun,” he said.
Holmes, a junior right-handed pitcher, will act calmer tonight at 9, when he starts USC’s second game of this World Series, against Arkansas. He is always bland on game days because he takes medication to help him focus. He said teammates joke with him about the medicine giving him an expressionless game-day face.
Holmes is also more naturally relaxed in this, his second trip to Omaha. He weathered what he called a “kind of nerve-wracking” experience here last year, when he started against Virginia and allowed just a run while striking out seven batters and walking one. This time, Holmes felt free to act more like himself on the eve of his World Series start.
“That’s Colby for you,” said pitcher Michael Roth. “He likes to have a good time, especially when he’s not on his medicine. When he’s on his medicine, he’s totally different.”
Holmes’ easygoing approach is also the product of his success this season, which stems, in part, from an adjustment to his position on the rubber. Holmes is 7-1 with a 2.80 ERA, 61 strikeouts and 15 walks. His ERA is down from 3.69 last year.
In four starts since returning from a strained shoulder that sidelined him for three series, he has just one poor outing. In the other three starts, including his two in the NCAA tournament, he allowed six hits and zero earned runs in 19-2/3 innings, with 15 strikeouts and two walks.
If he continues that success against Arkansas tonight, the Gamecocks likely will advance to Thursday’s game — the doorstep of the best-of-three World Series final. Lose tonight, and USC plays Wednesday against the winner of tonight’s elimination game between Kent State and Florida, which USC beat Saturday.
Holmes missed the Arkansas series, so the Razorbacks haven’t seen him since last year, when he threw from the far right side of the rubber — as he always had.
After Holmes’ second start this year, pitching coach Jerry Meyers decided to have Holmes move a step to the left and begin his windup on the center of the rubber.
Because Holmes is 5-11, he doesn’t have the natural leverage of a taller pitcher. Height helps right-handed pitchers — like Arkansas’ 6-4 Ryne Stanek, who will start tonight — keep the ball down and away to right-handed batters, “which as a right-handed pitcher is the spot you have to get to when you’re behind in the count,” Meyers said.
Meyers moving Holmes to the middle of the rubber let him rotate his back hip more easily in his windup when he tried to hit a low-and-outside spot, which he can now reach more consistently.
“Most times, when he made a mistake going away, it was the same mistake all right-handers make — missing in the middle (of the plate),” Meyers said.
Holmes said his biggest improvement this year is “definitely keeping the ball down. Last year, I was up in the zone. I got hit a good bit because I was up. This year, I’ve been down a good bit.”
Holmes worked on his new rubber alignment not by watching video with Meyers, but simply by throwing from the middle over and over — typical of Holmes’ old-school approach to preparation. He said he rarely even looks at the scouting reports Meyers gives him before starts.
“I just go out there and pitch my game,” he said. “I haven’t watched video with Jerry since I’ve been here. I’ve never done it before, so why change it up now? Last year, after I got back from Omaha was the first time I ever watched myself pitch. I watched a rerun of the Virginia game. It was weird. I was like, ‘That’s me.’ ”