Left-handers make up 10 percent of the population, but they’ve taken over the South Carolina pitching staff.
The Gamecocks’ top four left-handers — seniors Nolan Belcher, Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb and sophomore Jordan Montgomery — have pitched 47 percent of the team’s innings and dominated nearly every time out.
“They’ve pitched in all the big situations,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “They’ve done everything we asked them to do and more. Those guys have been great.”
The four have combined to post a 15-5 record with 15 saves and a 1.47 ERA over 1771/3 innings. They’ve allowed 135 hits and 28 walks while striking out 177. They don’t want to jinx themselves by bragging about their accomplishments, but they all smile and nod knowingly when asked if left-handers are more athletic, smarter, and more attractive to the fairer sex.
“Have you seen Webb’s girlfriend?” asked Belcher.
For his part, Webb likes that left-handers have a disproportionate level of success in baseball. That’s confined to the positions of pitcher, first base and outfield as compared to right-handed players.
“Right-handers are definitely jealous,” said a smiling Webb. “We have a hard time because we can’t play as many positions. They have more opportunities than we do, but once we make it at a competitive level, they’re jealous.”
Teams at all levels love having left-handed pitchers because they can shut down big left-handed bats, baffle entire lineups with the right mix of off-speed stuff, and slow down running games with their pickoff moves.
“It’s good to be a lefty,” Westmoreland said. “You’ve got a fighting chance because there are so many righties. Being a lefty has its advantages, for sure.”
Holbrook looks at his four pitchers — weekend starters Belcher (6-3, 1.70 ERA) and Montgomery (3-0, 1.14 ERA), middle reliever Westmoreland (4-1, 3 saves, 1.81 ERA) and closer Webb (2-1, 12 saves, 0.64 ERA) — and sees a group that can take over a game.
“All of those guys have a number of pitches they can throw in any count. They have great command,” Holbrook said. “They all have different strengths and go about getting hitters out in different ways. Offensively, you have to have a different approach against each one of those guys.”
The four agree that Webb has the best fastball, which reaches the low 90s, and Belcher has the best changeup. They’re split on whether Belcher or Westmoreland has the best curveball. And they all like Montgomery’s command and composure on the mound as far as being a younger pitcher.
Most importantly, they all consistently throw strikes, as their walk numbers attest.
“Having someone throwing strikes from the left side is hard for left-handed hitters,” Montgomery said.
The four also prove that pitchers can come in all shapes and sizes and have success. The 5-foot-8 Belcher has to look straight up at the 6-foot-6 Webb. And Westmoreland carries 270 pounds on his large frame.
“That is pretty unique,” Belcher said. “I’m 5-8 on a good day and then you’ve got Webb, who is tall and lanky. Westy looks like a linebacker, or maybe a lineman, out there. And Gumby (the baby-faced Montgomery) is just goofy — period.”
Left-handers have long been known for their flakiness — “We’re the weird guys,” Montgomery said — but this group’s focus when on the mound belies that general reputation, something that Webb chalks up to them having been around the block a few times at Carolina Stadium.
“There’s a little more maturity. We’ve been there. You know what to expect,” Webb said. “And Jordan got a bunch of experience last year as a freshman. It’s a good feeling to know this is our last year, and we’ve been throwing well to this point.”
They’re even grooming an apprentice lefty — freshman Jack Wynkoop (5-2, 3.12 ERA), who might have pushed his way into the weekend rotation. Belcher, who’s in his fifth year like Westmoreland, never envisioned becoming the Friday night starter this season, just as Westmoreland is embracing his new role after not pitching much in the second half of last season. They’re enjoying the ride.
“I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad we’re throwing well,” Belcher said.
And now that they’ve taken over the staff, could the world be next?
“I don’t know,” Westmoreland said, laughing. “We’ll see.”
Holbrook previews LSU series
South Carolina at LSU
WHEN: Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.
WHERE: Alex Box Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
TV: ESPN, Sunday
RADIO: WNKT-FM 107.5
SERIES: LSU leads 31-22-1
LAST MEETING: LSU won two-of-three last season
RECORDS: USC 31-11, 11-7 SEC; LSU 38-4, 15-3
RANKINGS: USC is No. 15, and LSU is No. 2 in the Baseball America Top 25
PITCHING MATCHUPS: Friday, USC LHP Nolan Belcher, Sr., 6-3, 1.70 vs. LSU RHP Aaron Nola, Soph., 7-0, 2.15; Saturday, USC LHP Jordan Montgomery, Soph., 3-0, 1.14 vs. LSU RHP Ryan Eades, Jr., 7-1, 2.56; Sunday, USC TBA vs. LSU TBA
NOTES: LSU has won nine of the past 11 meetings against the Gamecocks over the past five seasons. USC last won a series against the Tigers in 2007. Alex Bregman (.412, 5 HRs, 41 RBIs) and Mason Katz (.390, 13 HR, 60 RBIs) lead the LSU offense. Nolan Belcher is tied for first in the SEC with 10 starts, and Tyler Webb is tied for first in the SEC with 12 saves. LB Dantzler leads USC in batting average (.340), runs (33), hits (51), doubles (12), home runs (12), RBIs (42), slugging percentage (.673), walks (28) and on-base percentage (.449).