COLUMBIA — The physical part of hitting an elite pitcher like Vanderbilt right-hander Tyler Beede is difficult enough. Then there are the mental gymnastics a coach performs while preparing his batters for this challenge. And Chad Holbrook’s mind did plenty of somersaults last week as South Carolina entered its series against Vanderbilt.
As Holbrook studied Beede, he knew he couldn’t tell his righty hitters to simply time Beede’s changeup and take it the other way, because he throws the pitch at a major league level. If you sit on a changeup, Beede’s 94 mph fastball “has such great arm-side run” that it cuts in on righty hitters as it leaves Beede’s hand, and locks them up. If you think too much about inside heat, Beede can paint the outside corner with his fastball.
Beede, a sophomore, is probably the best pitcher USC will face all season. He went 21st in last year’s MLB draft, but declined Toronto’s $2.5 million signing bonus offer because he wanted $3.5 million. He was the only pick in the first round or supplemental first round (60 players total) who did not turn pro. Holbrook expects he will get drafted first or second overall next year.
On Saturday afternoon, Beede looked like one of America’s best amateur pitchers. In Vanderbilt’s 5-2 win, which clinched the series for the Commodores, he allowed two hits and two runs in 61/3 innings, while walking four, striking out seven and overshadowing USC’s Jordan Montgomery, who struggled. Beede was perfect through four innings and had a no-hitter through six. He was, just as Holbrook feared, everything the coach expected him to be.
“We had all kind of scouting reports on him, and boy, it makes it sound good when I get out there in front of the team and tell them, ‘This is what we’re going to do against him,’ ” Holbrook said. “It sounds like it’s going to work. Then you get out there and try to hit 93, 94 (mph) and it’s a whole different story. Sometimes, as a coach in this sport, you can feel awfully helpless. I felt helpless today with that guy on the mound.”
Fifteenth-ranked USC (33-14, 13-10 Southeastern Conference) will try to avoid a sweep today against No. 2 Vanderbilt (41-6, 21-2). The game will begin at noon instead of 1 because of a rainy forecast.
With 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, Vanderbilt certainly possesses the talent to reverse its recent NCAA tournament fortunes. The Commodores have made seven consecutive tournaments, but advanced past a regional just twice — in 2010, when they made a super regional, and 2011, when they reached their only College World Series.
Teams like Vanderbilt could stand between USC and a school-record fourth straight trip to Omaha, Neb. The best teams USC has played this year are Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU and Vanderbilt. The past two weekends, USC swept Kentucky and went 2-1 at LSU. USC is now 5-6 against those four teams, but the number does not worry Holbrook.
“Having a .500 record against (those teams) doesn’t mean that you can’t play in the College World Series,” he said.
Nor is there any shame in losing to Beede, who is 12-0 in 12 starts with a 1.73 ERA, 81 strikeouts and 44 walks. Holbrook hoped to seize on Beede’s habit of walking batters, but Holbrook knew Beede usually escaped those jams, as his ERA shows.
Beede walked the first two batters of the fifth, with Vanderbilt up 4-0, and USC had runners on second and third with one out. But a popout and strikeout extinguished the threat. USC trailed 5-0 in the seventh and led off with walk, single, single, to score its first run. USC got another, on a single, after freshman Carson Fulmer replaced Beede. But that was it, and Fulmer finished USC by throwing 97 and 99 mph. The sum of USC’s contact off Beede and Fulmer: three singles.
On a day when Beede shined, USC needed Montgomery to keep pace. Montgomery lasted 21/3 innings and allowed three earned runs in the shortest of his 21 career starts and just the fifth time he surrendered more than two earned runs.
The rarity of dud starts is a testament to Montgomery’s talent. But even in his fifth start after an elbow bone stress reaction sidelined him for four starts, Montgomery said his fastball velocity isn’t back to normal. That is an issue, because Montgomery doesn’t overpower like Beede does.
“Some days, you just don’t have it as a pitcher,” Holbrook said. “It can get magnified with a guy like Jordan because he doesn’t have overpowering stuff. If he’s missing just a tad, he can get hurt. He made some really bad two-strike pitches, and he got some pitches up over the plate and they made him pay. He’ll bounce back fine.”