COLUMBIA – More than a month has passed since South Carolina’s ace left-hander, Jordan Montgomery, last ascended the mound and showed why he is the backbone of the Gamecocks’ rotation. It was March 1, the Friday night opener of USC’s series against Clemson, and Montgomery dazzled, with three hits, nine strikeouts and two walks in eight innings.

He probably will not go that deep into a start this weekend, if he pitches at all during the Gamecocks’ series at Tennessee. But USC coach Chad Holbrook continued to feel optimistic Thursday, on the eve of the series, that Montgomery would return after missing four starts, including the first three Southeastern Conference series, with an elbow bone stress reaction.

As expected, Holbrook said lefty Nolan Belcher will start tonight as he tries to build on his absurd stats from his first seven starts – a 1.57 earned-run average, 51 strikeouts and one walk in a team-high 51 2/3 innings.

Holbrook will go with righty Evan Beal on Saturday. The former setup reliever shined in his first two starts after Montgomery’s injury, against Rider and Missouri. He allowed one run in a combined 12 1/3 innings in those games. In his past two starts, against Arkansas and Missouri, he allowed eight and two runs, while lasting just 3 2/3 and 3 1/3 innings.

Holbrook planned for Montgomery to play catch when USC arrived Thursday in Knoxville. “If Jordan feels good, we’ll give him the ball” on Sunday, Holbrook said. Montgomery would have a conservative pitch limit.

If Montgomery is sore, the Sunday starting options are lefty Jack Wynkoop, righty Colby Holmes and lefty Adam Westmoreland, depending on if any of them are needed in relief tonight or Saturday.

Wynkoop, a freshman, took Holmes’ spot in the rotation for the past two series. In Wednesday’s loss at Furman, Wynkoop appeared in relief, but threw just 12 pitches. Holmes started and threw 43 in Tuesday’s win over Charleston Southern, and looked unimpressive again. His senior season has been mostly a mess, and he has a 4.32 ERA, compared to 2.28 for Wynkoop.

Westmoreland, a fifth-year senior, took Beal’s place as the setup man when Montgomery’s injury forced Beal to start. Westmoreland has only relieved this year, but has a 0.96 ERA with 29 strikeouts and three walks in 28 innings. He hasn’t thrown since Saturday against Texas A&M.

USC (23-7, 5-4 SEC) swept the Aggies and surged into the second half of its 56-game regular season. The Gamecocks still have 21 conference games remaining, and Holbrook is trying to focus his struggling players – like Holmes and freshman second baseman Max Schrock – on the opportunities that lie ahead, rather than their failures from the first half.

Schrock, whose hitting Holbrook raved about before the season, hit .212 in the first half. He opened the second by going 3 for 5 against Charleston Southern and 1 for 5 against Furman.

“I just thought of this as kind of like a new season,” Schrock said after the Charleston Southern game, which began the second half. “In the previous at-bats, I was thinking about what I did before, what I did 10 at-bats ago. That just wasn’t helping me.”

Said Holbrook: “He’s not a .212 hitter. He’s a gifted hitter. He’s going to put up some good numbers here. I don’t have any doubt about that. I’m shocked, as well as he is (about the slow start). I think he’s just been putting entirely too much pressure on himself. He’s been trying to get three hits in one at-bat. He’s been burdened by some of his poor at-bats.”

As Holbrook prepared to get Montgomery back and make his team whole again, the coach talked to Schrock in his office before the Charleston Southern game and urged him to leave his problems behind, just as the Gamecocks swept Texas A&M right after being swept by Arkansas.

“Hey, let’s wipe the slate clean,” Holbrook recalled telling Schrock. “You’re 0 for 0 in my book. Let’s see what you hit the last 28 games of the year. Don’t even look at your average. Don’t pay attention to it. I’m not.”