A fresh start for Belcher


COLUMBIA -- A season ago, Nolan Belcher was often South Carolina's Saturday starter in the SEC. This season, left off the team's travel roster, he spent some Saturdays listening to the Gamecocks on the radio.

Quite the departure. Not exactly the normal trek of progression. Yet, Belcher, as a sophomore, is now getting his shot to start again in big games.

Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner announced Monday that Belcher, 3-0 with a 2.03 ERA, will start Wednesday's opening-round SEC tournament game against Ole Miss.

South Carolina (43-13) could certainly use a win or two to bolster its claim for a national seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Most projections currently have USC right on the bubble.

With the initial thought about Belcher in mind, it's a pretty stark contrast in the two starters' resumes. Belcher's numbers look staunch, but he's only thrown 26 2/3 innings this season.

And then there's Drew Pomeranz, likely the SEC's pitcher of the year, going for the Rebels (36-20). Pomeranz, the 6-5 left-hander, is 7-2 with a 2.39 ERA -- and 127 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings.

Auburn did tag him with his second loss of the season over the weekend, but he's still a tough matchup. The Gamecocks know: Pomeranz threw seven shutout innings at USC on April 16.

But South Carolina's Blake Cooper matched him pitch for pitch, and the Gamecocks broke through against the Rebels' bullpen in an eventual series win.

Cooper (10-1) isn't going Wednesday, because Tanner wants to keep him on a regular schedule.

"There'd be some question there, and we want to take the question out," Tanner said. "We just want to make sure his routine is good."

Cooper, a senior, will likely start Thursday against either Alabama or Auburn.

Sam Dyson, a junior, will start Friday, assuming the Gamecocks are still alive in the double-elimination event.

"Not trying to diminish emphasis on the tournament," Tanner said, "but we want them to be their best beyond the tournament."

Entering the season, or at least exiting last season, you might have presumed that Belcher, who pitched 82 2/3 innings last season, would be the team's third starter.

Tanner did.

"We expected him to be a little bit better, and he just hasn't been," he said. "The competition gets to be more difficult, within the team, for innings. Guys are fighting for innings. Guys have pitched well and limited his opportunities."

Asked what kind of year it's been for him personally, Belcher takes some time to answer. He's choosing his words with care.

"Um, it's been fun because we've been winning a lot of games," Belcher said. "But hopefully I can pitch better in the playoffs, help the team win."

Literally, control became the issue that prevented him from more innings in 2010. "I've just been picking at the plate, not going after guys," he said. "Hopefully this will be a good start, keep the walks down."

Belcher blames himself for falling out of the weekend pitching picture. One of the fastest ways to get in Tanner and pitching coach Mark Calvi's doghouse is walking batters -- even if those baserunners don't score.

Belcher has 16 walks, a team-high five wild pitches and two hit batters in 26 2/3 innings in 2010, despite that 3-0 record and extremely low ERA.

"At times he's been disappointed in himself," Tanner said. "His numbers are good. He's just walked too many people. That's been the bone of contention with me. You can't defend the walk."

He was so deep inside that doghouse at one point early in the season that you couldn't see him. Slowly, he's again wiggling himself out into the open air.

"It was my own fault," Belcher said. "If I'd pitched better, I would've probably been out there. But I didn't pitch well enough. I'm just glad I'm getting another opportunity to prove myself again."

Working for him is the game's location. Regions Park, as it's discussed each year at this time, is a big, big park. It's a Doublee-A field, the biggest the Gamecocks have seen this season.

The dimensions work for a pitcher like Belcher, who doesn't have a lot of velocity and yet needs to stay somewhere near the strike zone to avoid those walks.

"If he goes out and pitches Wednesday without walking people, we'll be fine," Tanner said. "He'll put us in position to win.

"Nolan's been there before. He's experienced. He's been in some situations that are similar to where he'll be."

Listed at 5-8 and 155 pounds, Belcher certainly isn't winning the physical intimidation matchup against Pomeranz. But that doesn't mean he still can't win the ballgame.

Teammate Whit Merrifield called Belcher a mini-Cooper. (Unsure if he intended the pun.)

"We've got great confidence in Nolan," Merrifield said. "He's got really good stuff. Sometimes he has trouble finding the zone, but he gets people out. He just wins. It's what he does."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).