All hands must be on deck to take a key series from LSU, especially at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
Though even healthy teams have struggled immensely against the red-hot, 38-4 Tigers, this season, it's at least good news for South Carolina that it's the healthiest it has been since the season began.
The 2013 campaign, at least thus far, has been a wild ride for the Gamecocks. After reaching the College World Series three-straight years, winning two national titles along the way, the garnet and black entered this season looking for equal success with a new skipper in charge in long-time Gamecocks and UNC assistant Chad Holbrook.
The Holbrook era certainly got off to a nice start. The Gamecocks took care of business against Liberty and Albany to begin the season, before taking two of three from heated rival Clemson and finishing off Rider to end non-conference weekend play.
The wild ride began with the start of Southeastern Conference play. Sophomore left-handed starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his throwing arm and went on the shelf, while some veteran arms that were expected to rise to the occasion this season didn't do so. On top of that, outstanding relief pitcher, left-hander Tyler Webb, also suffered a muscle injury around his elbow that has sidelined him at times.
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook loves the fact his team is finally healthy. (USC photo)
During that span, the Gamecocks put together quite an interesting trek through the front half of their SEC schedule. For instance, after taking two of three on the road from Missouri to begin league play, the Gamecocks returned home to get swept by Arkansas. Then, they turned the tables by sweeping Texas A&M and Tennessee, before getting swept on the road by Florida two weekends ago, and of course, keeping up with the crazy trend by sweeping Kentucky at home last weekend. Overall, five of South Carolina's six conference series have ended, one way or the other, in a sweep.
Holbrook finally hopes to see some consistency now that South Carolina is healthy.
"We're getting healthy and we're getting our guys back. This season has been difficult in that regard. Being healthy just makes it a lot easier to be more complete out there," Holbrook said. "I don't know if we could be incredibly healthy against these guys [LSU], and be guaranteed that it will show up on the scoreboard, but it's a step in the right direction.
"With the exception of catcher Dante Rosenberg, there's no doubt this is the healthiest we've been all-season long. Having all these guys back for the stretch run certainly makes it easier for a coach."
While there haven't been many constants when it comes to the South Carolina weekend rotation, veteran left-handed pitcher Nolan Belcher has been terrific. Belcher, who isn't a hard-throwing guy but commands very well, has started 10 games and has a fabulous 1.70 ERA in 74 innings of work. Amazingly, he also has struck out 61 and walked five.
Montgomery finally is getting back into a routine and put together a solid start against Kentucky last weekend, striking out seven batters, walking two and allowing just three runs (two earned) on four hits in 5 2/3 innings of work. The talented sophomore lefty is a cool customer on the mound and has increased his velocity since last season.
Though not a huge surprise to Holbrook, lanky 6-foot-5, 185-pound, freshman left-handed pitcher Jack Wynkoop is providing a huge boost on the mound this season. Wynkoop has a fastball in the upper-80s, and his secondary pitches have been sharp thus far. Wynkoop isn't listed as a starting pitcher this weekend against LSU, but the lefty isn't listed because the Gamecocks are willing to use him in a relief role Friday or Saturday if needed. That's precisely how much confidence Holbrook and pitching coach Jerry Meyers have in him.
"When Belcher and Montgomery pitch, they keep you in the game and give you a very good chance to win it. Those guys really have a nice ability to pitch late into games," Holbrook said. "With as much experience and with how good those two guys are, we feel pretty good anytime they step on the mound.
"The big thing on Wynkoop, though, is pitchability. He's a cut of the mold of some of those Gamecocks lefties you're used to," he continued. "He's not going to wow you with his stuff, but he changes speeds very well and throws his breaking pitches for strikes. He's poised and composed, and he's going to make teams beat him."
The Gamecocks desperately want to get right-handed pitchers Evan Beal, Colby Holmes and Forrest Koumas going down the stretch, but feel good about imposing left-hander Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb with just a month left to the regular season.
Westmoreland has risen to the occasion in some big spots and has a 1.81 ERA in 44 2/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, Webb, who was on the shelf for a while, looked fantastic last weekend against Kentucky with six strikeouts in four shutout innings of work. He has an 0.64 ERA and 12 saves in 28 innings of work.
"I thought Tyler looked about as good as he's ever looked last weekend," Holbrook said. "He was terrific. He had good velocity on his pitches and his velocity was right around the same as always. The results were the same as usual and command was good. Who knows, though, maybe he'll have some rust this weekend. Maybe he won't."
With the pitching staff healthy for once against the Tigers, perhaps some of the pressure will be taken off the Gamecocks' offense, which isn't flashy, but still enters the weekend series with a respectable .291 batting average.
South Carolina first baseman LB Dantzler has made some significant improvements with pitch recognition this season and has a .340 average with 12 doubles, 12 homers and 42 RBIs, while shortstop Joey Pankake, who's struggling in the field, is making up for that downfall at the plate with a .314 average, eight homers and 30 RBIs. Also keep an eye on catcher Grayson Greiner and second baseman Max Schrock, who have impressed the past few weeks with both making huge improvements from an offensive standpoint.
"I think our guys have swung the bats pretty well the past couple of weeks," he said. "I think we're leading the SEC in homers, but when I look at our lineup, I don't see our lineup as one that really overpowers teams. We just have a good group of guys, 1-9, who can hit the ball at any given time."
The Gamecocks head through the final month of the regular season with a 31-11 overall record, 11-7 mark in the SEC. Most importantly, they have a good RPI, but an overall resume that needs some work to solidify an NCAA postseason host site, and potentially vie for a top-eight national seed.
South Carolina finishes the regular season treacherous fashion with series remaining against not only LSU, but also Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Georgia.
That stretch certainly won't be easy, but for once, all hands are on deck.
"I feel like we're a pretty good team, but we've got to get a lot better, especially with the schedule that's ahead of us," he said. "I think we're a better offensive team than we were last season, and I hope that's something to helps carry us down the stretch."
Pitching prowess: Vanderbilt RHP Tyler Beede
Tyler Beede's evolution as a pitcher has never been more evident.
Beede's situation out of high school is well-documented by this point. He, of course, is a talented right-handed pitcher who turned down the Toronto Blue Jays as a first-round pick to attend Vanderbilt. With that came plenty of scrutiny from the professional ranks, and as you might think, extremely high expectations.
Like most freshman pitchers, the now 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, had his fair share of struggles in his first campaign in 2012. He struck out 68 batters in 71 2/3 innings, but also had 32 walks and tallied an unimpressive 4.52 earned-run average.
Vanderbilt RHP Tyler Beede has made major strides this season. (Vandy photo)
Though things haven't been perfect for the talented right-handed hurler as a sophomore this spring, he has made significant strides and developed into a front-line starting pitcher for one of the nation's elite clubs.
"I had a chance to see him through winter time and my assessment was that he was a guy with a pretty good arm," Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown said. "I figured maybe it was a freshman thing or something, but I was a little concerned about his consistency in the strike zone. He seemed to be a strike-thrower in the winter, but he had a lot of walks as a freshman."
Beede began this season in rather odd fashion. Much like last season, he had issues walking batters the first few weeks. But something was different. When Beede ran into major trouble last season because of walks, he tended to give up several runs. But this year? He walked five batters opening weekend against Long Beach State, and allowed just one run. And even more impressive, on the road against Oregon, Beede walked six batters, and yeah, you guessed it, allowed just one run.
So, while walks remained an issue earlier this season, Beede was doing a much better job of bearing down and working out of jams, putting his mental growth on full display.
"The big thing with Tyler is his maturity, his bend but don't break attitude," Brown said. "Walks were really high at the beginning of the year, but we made a couple of adjustments, such as staying down on the slope and repeating his mechanics. Our mentality is that we're one pitch away and we're moving on to the next pitch. He certainly has embraced that mentality."
As the 2013 campaign has progressed, Beede's struggles in the walk department have changed from an issue the entire game to one that typically just catches up with him when fatigue takes effect late in contests. And as with any situation, the Commodores have adjusted to that, with Beede only throwing seven innings (twice), six innings and 7 1/3 innings in his last four starts, all with solid results.
"You know, the big thing with him is that a lot of those walks were late in outings," Brown said. "If we took him out a little earlier, he might have 15 of 16 less walks, and you're looking at his situation a little differently.
"With that said, his numbers show that he's been great at pitching out of jams. Unlike last season, he really is doing a great job of staying with his routine and making big pitches in big situations," Brown continued. "To me, that just shows Tyler's maturity, understanding and general ability to pitch."
For the season, the right-hander has rather interesting numbers. He has a 1.51 ERA (10 starts) in 65 2/3 innings, along with 67 strikeouts and 38 walks, more walks than he had all of last season. However, the big difference is that teams are hitting him at a .164 clip, as opposed to a .287 average last season.
Stuff-wise, Beede certainly has evolved. He's sitting 90-95 with his fastball, a hard, 80-83 with his curveball that includes sharp break, and his best pitch right now might just be a plus changeup that sits 82-84 on the radar gun.
"That changeup of his has really developed into a plus pitch. That has become his out pitch and he's really worked hard on throwing that pitch for strikes. It's a pretty good pitch," Brown said. "He's doing a better job of incorporating more two-seam fastballs, and that's giving him the ability to front-door some left-handed hitters, and back-door some right-handed hitters, all with some big-time velocity at 92-94."
As the Commodores move forward, they're expected to compete for the national title come June. Junior left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek continues to get a lot of draft headlines for obvious reasons. But while Beede may be sitting in the shadows for now, it's never been more obvious that his time to be in the spotlight is coming.
Just like we all expected.
"I just want him to continue maturing like he is right now. We can't really look ahead in this type of situation. It's all about trusting his stuff and pushing himself in the weight room to get better and what not. Just learn more as a pitcher," he said. "I've noticed this season that he's reading swings a lot more. He'll come back into the dugout and make mental notes on what hitters are doing. I want to see him continue to do those types of things."
Series to watch
No. 1 North Carolina at No. 6 North Carolina State: If there is one team who can derail the Tar Heels, it might just be the heated rivals and winners of 15-straight games, the N.C. State Wolfpack. With that said, the Wolfpack needs another big-time starting performance from left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon. Rodon has struggled much of the season, but was outstanding last weekend against Georgia Tech. He has a 4.48 ERA in 60 1/3 innings, along with 95 strikeouts and 27 walks. THE PICK: North Carolina
No. 14 South Carolina at No. 2 LSU: The Gamecocks haven't lost a series this season when left-handed pitchers Jordan Montgomery and Tyler Webb have been healthy, and they hope to keep that streak intact this weekend against sizzling LSU. Meanwhile, the Tigers hope right-handed pitcher Ryan Eades can get back to business. Eades has a 2.56 ERA in 63 1/3 innings, along with 59 strikeouts and 16 walks. THE PICK: LSU
No. 15 Mississippi State at No. 3 Vanderbilt: The Commodores have been outstanding this season with left-handed pitcher Kevin Ziomek and right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede leading the charge. They hope to keep their winning ways going against a State club playing a very solid brand of baseball these days. Keep an eye on outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who's hitting .410 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs. THE PICK: Vanderbilt
No. 5 Virginia at Virginia Tech: The Cavaliers have been one of the best stories in college baseball this season, and hope to continue their winning ways on the road against a Virginia Tech club really needing an impressive series win. The Hokies have a big-time offensive lineup, but really need right-handed pitcher Brad Markey to step up this weekend. Markey has a 5.82 ERA in 65 innings of work, along with 46 strikeouts and 15 walks. THE PICK: Virginia
No. 25 Stanford at No. 13 Oregon: The Cardinal appeared to be in trouble just a few weeks ago, but now appear to be on a positive trajectory headed toward the end of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Ducks have a solid club, but really are in need of a marquee series win over the Cardinal this weekend. Keep an eye on Stanford junior right-handed pitcher Mark Appel, who has a 1.54 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 84 and walked 12. THE PICK: Oregon
Michigan at No. 17 Indiana: The Wolverines still have a chance to reach the NCAA postseason with a very strong finish, but desperately need a road series win over Indiana this weekend to keep at-large hopes alive. UM is playing a nice brand of baseball these days, and be sure to keep an eye on young pitcher Evan Hill, who has a 1.69 ERA in 64 innings. Interestingly, as impressive as those numbers are, he has just 34 strikeouts and also 27 walks. THE PICK: Indiana
No. 24 Kentucky at No. 18 Mississippi: The Wildcats hit the road last weekend and had a tough three-game series against South Carolina. Now, with an NCAA Regional host site a distant memory -- for now -- UK hopes to return to normalcy against the Rebels. Keep an eye on electric outfielder Austin Cousino, who's hitting .269 with 10 doubles, five homers and 23 RBIs. TH PICK: Ole Miss
No. 19 Georgia Tech at Clemson: In a series that possibly could determine an NCAA Regional host site at the end of the regular season, the Yellow Jackets and Tigers meet up this weekend. Clemson has gradually gotten better as the season progresses, while the Yellow Jackets took a step back last weekend by getting swept at home by N.C. State. Clemson sophomore right-handed pitcher Daniel Gossett is a big guy to watch this weekend, as he has a 2.56 ERA in 63 1/3 innings. THE PICK: Clemson
UNLV at New Mexico: This series is flying under the radar in a big way this weekend, but it could very well determine who wins the Mountain West regular season title. The Lobos have been playing very good and as usual, keep an eye on hard-hitting third baseman DJ Peterson, who's hitting .400 with 19 doubles, three triples, 12 homers and 50 RBIs. Meanwhile, for the Rebels, keep an eye on outfielder Brandon Bayardi, who's hitting .323 with seven homers and 28 RBIs. THE PICK: New Mexico
Texas at Baylor: Both the Bears and Longhorns are in bad shape from an NCAA postseason standpoint, but the loser of this series likely is done for the year in terms of at least earning an at-large bid. The Bears will be without sure-handed right-handed pitcher Dillon Newman this weekend, with Ryan Smith moving into the weekend rotation. Meanwhile, the Longhorns have three solid starting pitchers to watch for in Parker French, Nathan Thornhill and Dillon Peters. Specifically, Peters really has improved as the season has progressed. THE PICK: Baylor