South Carolina left-hander Nolan Belcher celebrated Senior Day one day early.
The fifth-year senior completely handcuffed Georgia in USC’s 7-2 win Friday night at Carolina Stadium, one day before the team’s nine seniors are to be honored in a pre-game ceremony.
Belcher (7-5) gave up two runs on five hits and no walks while striking out eight in 7 1/3 innings on 100 pitches. He retired 16 consecutive hitters during one stretch between the first and sixth innings.
The Augusta, Ga., native, who missed the 2011 season due to elbow surgery, has compiled a 2.23 ERA over 93 innings this season as he worked his way into the role of team ace.
“The story of the game, rightfully so, was Nolan Belcher. We coach for a lot of reasons, but one of the big reasons we coach is to be around kids like him,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “I know what that kid has been through for five years here. It’s really nice to see that all the hard work pay off.”
Holbrook was thrilled to see Belcher, who pitched primarily as a reliever last season, work his magic one more time in front of the home crowd in a meaningful SEC game.
“He’s from Georgia and pitching against Georgia means a lot to that kid in that last regular-season (home) start at South Carolina. That was a special moment for Nolan and a special moment for his coach,” Holbrook said
The teams play the second game of the series Saturday at 1 p.m., when Belcher and all of the other seniors will be recognized. Fellow senior left-handers Adam Westmoreland and Tyler Webb, who was making his 100th career appearance, two shy of the school record, combined to get the final five outs.
Sophomore catcher Grayson Greiner led the nine-hit attack with three hits -- a single, double and triple -- as the No. 15 Gamecocks improved to 35-14 overall and 14-10 in the SEC. Greiner compared Belcher’s efficiency and command to that of former ace Michael Roth.
“It’s fun catching guys like that. He doesn’t make me do much work back there. He’s a soldier out there. I just love catching him,” Greiner said. “He was on cruise control, doing what he always does, working down in the (strike) zone and making guys swing and miss.”
The Bulldogs (18-29, 5-17 SEC) jumped on top after the game’s first batter when Nelson Ward pulled a home run around the right-field foul pole off Belcher.
“In my younger days, I might have let that fluster me a little bit,” Belcher said. “I was able to forget about it and just tried to stay focused and make quality pitches.”
Georgia’s 1-0 lead didn’t last long. The Gamecocks responded with two runs in their half of the first off Georgia right-hander Sean McLaughlin (4-6) on LB Dantzler’s RBI double and Greiner’s RBI triple. And they upped the lead to 4-1 in the third inning on Graham Saiko’s sacrifice fly and Kyle Martin’s RBI single.
USC added three more in the fifth, and the Bulldogs didn’t scratch out another run until Ward’s bunt single off Westmoreland squeezed it home in the eighth inning. Georgia coach David Perno credited Belcher for keeping the Bulldogs off-balance with his ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and his ability to change speeds.
“He mixes it up and pitches on both sides (of the plate),” Perno said. “He’s very competitive. He doesn’t give in. He throws what he wants to throw when he throws it. That makes it tough to put things together.”
USC hitters did what they had to do, as seven different players collected an RBI.
“It was really good to see everybody spraying the ball around the field and barreling a lot of balls up,” Greiner said. “There weren’t any weak outs tonight. It was very encouraging to see one through nine put together a whole night’s worth of good swings.”
Holbrook called it a complete game for his team, but he still knew it was Belcher’s night. He recalled some of Belcher’s best games as a freshman starter, but he loves the way his senior is going out.
“This year is what I’ll remember most about Nolan. This is why he was recruited to South Carolina – to be a weekend starter and pitch in games like this,” Holbrook said.