COLUMBIA — There is a common theme to almost all 11 of South Carolina’s College World Series trips. Only once did the Gamecocks play their initial NCAA tournament games on the road — 2003, when they traveled to Atlanta for the regional, then got a home super regional.
No. 18 USC’s chances of hosting a regional this season could hinge on its next three series, all against challenging opponents — this weekend at home against No. 17 Kentucky, next weekend at No. 3 LSU, and the following weekend at home against No. 2 Vanderbilt. After that, USC will have just two series, against currently unranked Georgia and at No. 16 Mississippi State, as well as the Southeastern Conference tournament, to make its case for regional hosting.
Coming off being swept at Florida, the Gamecocks can feel somewhat optimistic entering the Kentucky series, because they pounded the College of Charleston, 10-6, on Tuesday night.
USC (28-10) had 14 hits, shortstop Joey Pankake and right fielder Connor Bright, of Wando High School, each drove in three runs, including a two-run home run by both players. Charleston (20-16) started freshman Player Loving, and he was done after an inning-plus after he allowed five hits and five runs.
But concerns remain for the Gamecocks, who might not have closer Tyler Webb this weekend. Two pitchers who they probably will need in middle relief were not entirely effective against a Charleston team that entered Tuesday hitting .264.
Starter Forrest Koumas allowed four hits and four runs in 21/3 innings, increasing his ERA to 7.80 in eight outings. He was pitching for just the second time since March 22. His other outing since then was a mess, too — an April 3 start at Furman, in which he allowed four hits and three runs in 31/3 innings.
Koumas said he is pain-free after elbow surgery last summer. He said he isn’t being hampered by his new, more over-the-top throwing motion that pitching coach Jerry Meyers wants him to use to limit elbow stress. But control continued to be an issue for Koumas on Tuesday.
“When you get behind, you’ve got to start throwing balls over the middle, and that’s when the other team does its damage,” Koumas said.
Webb could miss his second straight series because of an elbow muscle strain. There is nothing structurally amiss with Webb’s arm, and MRIs have encouraging USC coach Chad Holbrook. Depending on how a doctor visit goes Thursday or Friday, and how Webb feels when he plays catch, he could throw against Kentucky. At this point, Holbrook said it’s a matter of whether throwing will exacerbate Webb’s pain, and how much pain Webb can manage.
“(Some pain) might stay with him the whole year, whether we pitch him this weekend or not,” Holbrook said.
Replicating Webb’s 0.75 ERA in 24 innings wasn’t going to be easy. Moreover, it is unreasonable to expect USC’s hitters to knock out 14 hits and 10 runs in most SEC games, just as the Gamecocks cannot rely on their starting pitchers to always throw seven-plus innings, or bank on Adam Westmoreland, their only consistently effective middle reliever, to produce successful, long stints on three straight days.
Holbrook believed World Series-tested senior starter Colby Holmes could capably handle the late innings. At least on Tuesday, he remained spotty. He struck out two of the five batters he faced in the ninth, but also allowed two hits and a run, increasing his ERA to 4.39.
Holbrook thought Holmes’ velocity would increase when he could pitch aggressively in a shorter outing, and Holbrook said the velocity Tuesday was “as good as it’s been the whole year.” Holbrook attributed some of Holmes’ glitches Tuesday to the fact that he pitched 12/3 innings on Saturday, and hoped better outings awaited, if indeed Holmes has to take on this new role.
“I think there will be even more of a difference when he’s fresh,” Holbrook said.