COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s only new starting pitcher this season wasn’t really new at all.
Nolan Belcher arrived at USC in what seems like another era, the fall of 2008. The Gamecocks had yet to win their back-to-back national championships or even play a game in their new park, Carolina Stadium. His current teammates call him “an old geezer,” he said.
Belcher grabbed a spot in the weekend rotation during the 2009 season and seemed headed for a prosperous career. In back-to-back games against Arkansas and Mississippi, he threw 81/3 and nine innings, respectively, and allowed just two total runs. Later that season, he struck out 11 against Georgia.
He wouldn’t have even been in uniform Sunday afternoon against Clemson if not for the anguish he endured while rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow during the 2011 season, when he redshirted.
The surgery stalled his career, and it seemed reasonable to wonder if he could ever replicate those performances from 2009. Though his ERA dipped from 5.33 that year to 2.43 in 2010 and 2.12 last year, he started just six games in 2010 and two in 2012, and threw 292/3 innings both seasons.
But there he was Sunday in front of a sellout crowd of 8,242, nine days shy of his 24th birthday, painting the inside corner of the plate more consistently than he has all season, and pitching better than he ever has at USC.
In an 8-0 USC victory that gave the Gamecocks (8-2) the three-game traveling series, Belcher threw a complete game — the second by a USC pitcher since the start of last season. He allowed three hits, walked nobody, struck out seven, faced five batters over the minimum and pitched to more than three hitters in an inning just twice.
“I’m sure he, at times, probably questioned whether he would ever get back to where he was when he got here as a freshman,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook.
They say Tommy John surgery is like getting a new elbow. Pitching coach Jerry Meyers said before the season that the experience also steeled Belcher’s will.
“I think that’s going to make him even better,” Meyers said.
It has. Through three starts, Belcher’s stats are sterling: a 2.18 ERA, 23 strikeouts and one walk.
“Going through that stuff really takes a toll on you mentally, for sure,” Belcher said. “It makes you tougher. I think that helped me a lot (Sunday), especially early in the game. I tried to keep my emotions in check. You can’t pitch off of emotion. That’s when you start leaving balls up in the zone. Going through that stuff definitely helped me mentally, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
USC essentially sealed Sunday’s win with a five-run fifth inning that pushed its lead to 6-0. USC got all five runs with two outs on three straight singles, then a double. The last three of those hits came on the first, second and second pitches of the at-bats, underscoring the aggressive approach Holbrook wanted to see Sunday, because he didn’t notice it enough in Saturday’s 6-3 loss to the Tigers.
Former Wando star Connor Bright went 2 for 3 with a double and two RBIs, and Chase Vergason hit a solo homer in the fourth for the Gamecocks, who hit 11 for 34 Sunday after going 12 for 64 in the series’ first two games. And as their offense continues to improve, Holbrook can take comfort in the way Belcher and Jordan Montgomery bookended the Clemson series with magnificent starts.
As Sunday’s game wound down, Holbrook and Meyers let Belcher (2-1) return for the ninth even though he had thrown 106 pitches and wanted to cap him at 110 to 115.
“But what that kid’s been through and the work he’s put in, we felt he deserved the opportunity to finish the game,” Holbrook said. “He’ll remember that start the rest of his life.”
Clemson starter Scott Firth (2-1) went six innings and allowed six runs, one earned, on eight hits with a walk and three strikeouts.
South Carolina next hosts Ball State at 7 p.m. Tuesday, while Clemson hosts Wofford at 4 p.m. Wednesday.