Coming off Tommy John surgery, Adam Westmoreland makes his return

Adam Westmoreland will start for USC on Sunday against Southern Illinois.

COLUMBIA -- There was an air of familiarity Sunday when Adam Westmoreland climbed the Carolina Stadium pitching mound.

He had done it before. But things had changed quite a bit since he had last.

"I had a lot of emotion going in," said the 6-5, 265-pound left-hander.

Westmoreland went 4-2 in 13 games (six starts) for South Carolina as a freshman in 2009. But he tore an elbow ligament just before his sophomore season and was forced to redshirt after having Tommy John surgery.

While the Gamecocks were on the way to winning a national championship, Westmoreland was rehabbing. Even while the team was in the College World Series in Omaha, the Cayce native was at home working out.

He shared to some extent the joy of the 2010 season, but always with an eye toward 2011 -- when he could again help and directly impact the team.

That time has arrived.

After a progressively strong fall camp and set of preseason scrimmages -- and dropping about 40 pounds since he was a freshman -- Westmoreland beat out Bryan Harper and Steven Neff for the job as the team's Sunday starter.

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner and pitching coach Jerry Meyers only guaranteed that first start to the opening weekend rotation of Michael Roth, Tyler Webb and Westmoreland.

Roth held Santa Clara to two runs in 5 2/3 innings, earning the opening day victory. Webb followed with six strong innings Saturday, giving up a run on three hits to get the win.

Westmoreland was good, too, going 5 2/3 innings in a 6-0 shutout of the Broncos to complete a sweep. The big southpaw gave up three hits and a walk, but struck out five.

"It was encouraging," Tanner said. "He continues to get more comfortable. I think he continues to improve. I think he continues to get better each time out."

Westmoreland will start Sunday against Southern Illinois. The three-game series at Carolina Stadium begins today at 3 p.m.

A lot of pitchers ultimately meet the knife for Tommy John surgery. But few are as young as Westmoreland was when he blew out his left elbow.

"Going through anything like that, it teaches you not to take the game for granted," said Westmoreland, who was the 2008 South Carolina Mr. Baseball across the river from Carolina Stadium at Brookland-Cayce High School. "You don't realize how much it means until something happens and you can't play anymore."

Westmoreland said his initial thought was that the injury could cost him his career -- in college or beyond. But he started to research and see how many pitchers had bounced back from Tommy John surgery, only to wind up having more arm strength.

In the majors, Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson and John Smoltz are among those who pitched well after the major arm surgery. Even Stephen Strasburg is currently on the mend from Tommy John.

Westmoreland responded positively to the adversity, even though the injury cost him a chance to pitch for the national champions.

"It was difficult," Tanner said. "It's got to be a tremendous challenge. I can't say enough good things about how he handled himself.

"It's not an easy thing to do, to take a year off and rehab and not travel and be a part of things. I know he felt close to his teammates, but he wasn't a part of things. I know he's ecstatic to be back out there."

Before his arm was ready to be tested, Westmoreland already was working on reshaping his body. With help from veteran strength coach Billy Anderson, Westmoreland cut more than 13 percent from his total body weight. He weighed more than 300 pounds as a freshman; to some in his hometown, he's difficult to recognize now.

Westmoreland is successfully throwing three pitches, a fastball, curve and change. He's also tinkering with a cutter that might eventually become his out pitch.

In a sense, he's the same pitcher who toed the mound for the Gamecocks in 2008. But in many more senses, he's a different guy.

"Physically, I feel like I'm in a lot better shape than I was," Westmoreland said. "Mentally, I feel like I've grown and matured a lot. Mentally and physically, I'm a lot stronger than I was."