South Carolina pitcher Jordan Montgomery’s arm injury provides chance for Evan Beal to prove himself

COLUMBIA – He is one of South Carolina’s most intriguing baseball players, a pitcher who wows his teammates in practices but has yet to consistently raise eyebrows in games.

Ever since right-hander Evan Beal arrived at USC last season, he hasn’t been able to grasp a prominent role. Matt Price was the closer last year, and Tyler Webb took over for him this season. One starting rotation spot was open in 2013, and it went to Nolan Belcher.

Beal, meanwhile, remained in a setup relief role, just like last season. He certainly hasn’t been a non-factor. He pitched in 28 of USC’s 69 games last season. But when you consider that he was an eighth-round draft pick out of high school – the highest-drafted member of USC’s 2012 freshman class – then you wonder why he hasn’t made a bigger impact.

He still has plenty of time to do it, beginning tonight, when he will start against Rider. USC’s usual Friday starter, lefty Jordan Montgomery, is out for this series and next weekend’s Southeastern Conference opener at Missouri because of a bone stress reaction in his throwing elbow.

The injury is less serious than a stress fracture, so USC coach Chad Holbrook is hopeful that rest will heal it. But he is not optimistic that Montgomery will be ready for the second SEC series, at home against Arkansas.

USC’s two best options for Montgomery’s spot seem to be Beal and freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop, who hasn’t allowed an earned run in 11 1/3 innings, over two starts and a one-batter relief appearance – against Liberty, Furman and Ball State, which don’t resemble SEC teams. But Wynkoop started against Ball State on Tuesday, so he was out for this weekend.

Beal has two relief appearances, against Liberty and Furman, and has thrown just 3 2/3 innings. The Gamecocks’ starting pitching shined in last weekend’s series against Clemson, so they didn’t need to lean on middle relievers. For what it’s worth, Beal has allowed three hits, no runs and no walks, with five strikeouts.

Though Rider is another ho-hum opponent, tonight is a chance for Beal to impress Holbrook. He has already seen progress from Beal, who struggled during fall practices.

“I was just thinking a little too much, pressing, trying to reach outside my limits a little,” Beal said. “So with the way I’ve started the season, I talked to coach Holbrook a little bit about it, and (I am) just going out and slowing my thoughts down and trusting my stuff. Let my stuff do its thing and not really try to pressure myself into throwing my pitches outside my limits.”

Holbrook said Beal “looks a little bit more in control of his emotions. He’s not trying to make every pitch perfect. He’s got good enough stuff where he can make a mistake and be OK. I think he’s realized that. It is very encouraging for us. But again, long way to go.”

Last season, Beal had a 3.81 earned-run average, 55 walks and 32 strikeouts in 52 innings. His only start came at Vanderbilt, where he allowed four hits and four runs in 3 1/3 innings.

He rebounded and threw better in long relief against Alabama and Georgia. He went 3 2/3 and four innings, allowed a run each time and struck out four in both outings. When USC beat Clemson 5-4 in 12 innings in the NCAA tournament Regional, Beal threw the final 1 1/3 innings, allowed no hits and no runs and struck out two of the four batters he faced.

That was Beal at his best, the guy who draws lavish praise from USC’s hitters.

“His fastball just looks like it comes out of his hand harder than most people,” said freshman second baseman Max Schrock. “And his curveball, that’s the best one I’ve ever seen.”

Beal also uses a sharp, hard-breaking slider and “can throw it in any count for a strike,” said junior left fielder Graham Saiko. “It makes it hard, because you can’t really sit on any one pitch.”

Beal hasn’t even reached 60 career innings yet, and there is good reason to see better things in his future, especially since two of USC’s starters are seniors.

“The more experienced you get as a pitcher, the more you understand your stuff,” said Webb, the senior closer. “I think that’s the case with him.”