COLUMBIA — Some thought Braden Webb would never pitch again, much less at a level that would make him one of the preeminent starters in the SEC.
Yet that’s exactly what he’s become, despite a near two-year layoff due to Tommy John surgery, and the inexperience of being a true freshman. Webb has emerged as a pillar of South Carolina’s weekend rotation, anchoring the Saturday spot behind a collection of “electric” pitches that have made him nothing short of dominant in his past two outings.
“The velocity on his fastball is elite. His breaking ball is one of the best we’ve had here in a long time. He’s got a good changeup. He has the whole arsenal to be an All-American type, All-SEC type pitcher,” said head coach Chad Holbrook. “The question with Braden going into this season was, was he going to be able to showcase all those pitches because he’s ahead in the count and not walking everybody.”
In his last two outings, he’s done just that. Webb struck out 14 at Ole Miss in a four-hit performance that helped the eighth-ranked Gamecocks (25-5, 7-2 SEC) sweep on the road. Last week at Vanderbilt, he struck out 11 and allowed two hits in a shutout victory that salvaged USC’s lone win in the series.
Entering this weekend’s series against Tennessee (18-11, 3-6), Webb ranks fourth in the SEC with a 1.70 earned run average, and is tied for second in wins with a 6-1 record. The Owasso, Okla., native needed Tommy John surgery after feeling a pop in his arm two years ago Sunday, and became available to USC after falling to the 38th round in the Major League draft.
“It’s pretty emotional,” he said. “People told me I would never throw a baseball ever again in my life. Some people would tell me I wouldn’t be back to where I am now. It was a lot of mixed emotions, and I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong.”
He’s doing that at USC behind a more polished approach that centers on getting ahead of batters with all three of his pitches. “It’s really been vital to my success as a pitcher,” he said. “... It’s just something I’ve really had to work on, and I feel better about myself every time I go out there and I work ahead.”
Holbrook can tell the difference. Along with Clarke Schmidt (6-1, 1.80), who will start Friday’s 7 p.m. opener against the Vols, Webb has helped the Gamecocks lead the SEC in earned run average at 2.47.
“He’s a special talent who in his last two starts has put it all together,” Holbrook said. “... If he’s in the strike zone, if he’s working ahead of hitters, he’s awfully hard to handle, because his stuff is electric. And I think these last two times he’s figured out that the pitching part is much more important than raring back and throwing as hard as you can.”
— Outfielder Alex Destino, who sprained his shoulder crashing into the wall chasing down a fly ball at Vanderbilt, remains “doubtful” for this weekend, Holbrook said. It’s a matter of pain tolerance for the sophomore, tied for the team lead in batting with a .360 average.
“If he can swing the bat, he’ll be active,” said Holbrook, who would play Destino at DH. “If he can’t, we’ll shoot for next week.”