COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s team bus cruised along the highway Saturday night, carrying disappointed players and coaches who couldn’t wait to get back to Columbia and get on with a season that has taken a frustrating turn.
The Gamecocks had just lost 14-5 at Florida, to complete a three-game sweep at the hands of the Gators. They are 8-7 at the midpoint of their Southeastern Conference schedule for the second straight year, though last season, they rolled into the midpoint having swept Mississippi State.
They found some joy on the long road home from Gainesville, because they watched their former ace Michael Roth throw two perfect innings of relief and get the win in his major league debut for the Los Angeles Angels.
It also served as a reminder of what this USC team is chasing. Roth led the Gamecocks to back-to-back national titles in 2010 and 2011 and a runner-up finish in 2012. Perhaps these Gamecocks don’t have the makings of a College World Series finalist, but then again, many observers believed early last season that USC wouldn’t get back to Omaha.
Then the Gamecocks surged to start the second half of their 2012 SEC schedule, winning 9 of 10 games, including their first seven. But that USC team had its full complement of players and opened the second half with Auburn and Alabama, who finished 13-17 and 9-21 in league play.
These Gamecocks didn’t have closer Tyler Webb last weekend because of a sore elbow and likely won’t have him this weekend against No. 17 Kentucky. His status for the following weekend’s series at No. 3 LSU is uncertain.
USC, which is currently ranked 18th, finishes the gauntlet by hosting No. 2 Vanderbilt.
It’s no wonder that Holbrook called the trip home from Gainesville “one of the most miserable bus rides I’ve had in my coaching career.”
USC has a chance to gain some confidence tonight at home against the College of Charleston, which the Gamecocks defeated 3-1 last month.
“We were not as aggressive as I would have liked when we played (USC) last time,” Cougars coach Monte Lee said. “That’s something we’re going to stress. When we’ve had trouble scoring this season it’s because we’re not swinging the bats.”
Holbrook just wants to see some encouraging innings from his starter tonight, Forrest Koumas. With Webb out, Holbrook will lean more on Koumas, Evan Beal and Colby Holmes to solidify the bullpen. All three have been spotty this season, and their numbers pale compared to Webb’s 0.75 ERA in 17 appearances.
Koumas has a 6.39 earned-run average in 122/3 innings over seven appearances, with two starts. Beal’s ERA is 5.33. Holmes’ is 4.28, but Holbrook is now turning to him to fill Webb’s spot in the late innings.
Koumas, a junior, started Game 1 of the 2011 College World Series final and allowed three hits and a run in 52/3 innings. He hasn’t been consistently effective since.
His ERA was 4.82 last season, as he dealt with an elbow injury that required offseason surgery. He threw just 28 innings last season after throwing 73 in 2011, when he was a weekend starter. Though he is healthy now and still throwing hard, his accuracy has fluctuated.
“His stuff is not an issue,” Holbrook said. “He was one of our better guys in January. We thought we were going to get ready to have a big year from him. He’s just thrown too many balls and worked behind in the count. His stuff is as good as what we’ve got. He’s been 90 to 92 (mph) every time we’ve put him out there. He just needs some confidence. We’re counting on him to give us some quality outings here in the second half of the year.”
Holbrook thought on Sunday that Webb might be done for the year, but an MRI on Monday revealed just a muscle strain. So Holbrook felt encouraged. But he is taking a realistic approach to these next three SEC series, all significant challenges. He finds it hard to envision USC winning nine of 10 to start the second half again.
“The strength of our schedule is extremely difficult,” he said. “We’re not in a good spot. I’ll be the first to tell you. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say, ‘Hey, we’re OK.’ Because I don’t feel that way. We’ve just got to try to fight like crazy to keep our head above water.”
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