IT IS THE surest sign associated with the South Carolina baseball team that spring has arrived. The Gamecocks have whittled their pitching staff down to the three starters and two relief pitchers they will rely on almost exclusively for the remainder of the conference regular season and throughout the postseason.
As sure as the green dusting of pollen engulfs Columbia every April and Atlanta’s major-league team fields a solid pitching staff, USC coach Chad Holbrook and pitching coach Jerry Myers will reduce their reliable arms to five.
In so doing, the chatter early in every season that USC will have much more pitching depth this go-round is rendered useless. That depth, once again this season, is being used to build USC’s resume during mid-week, non-conference games.
So USC’s fortunes from this weekend’s important series against Alabama at Carolina Stadium to perhaps the College World Series in Omaha will rest on the arms of starters Jordan Montgomery, Jack Wynkoop and Wil Crowe, setup man Cody Mincey and closer Joel Seddon.
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“In talking with coach Myers, we just know the meaning of each and every pitch in our league, especially when it gets late in the game,” Holbrook said by way of explanation.
“Sometimes, you’ll go with that guy who’s had an incredible amount of success even though he might be a little bit tired or you might have used him the day before,” he said, “just because it’s too important to put someone out there who is unproven in that situation.”
Easy arguments can be made against relying too heavily on such a limited number of arms. The most obvious is that it reduces the options available out of the bullpen. Then there is the psychology at play. The other pitchers cannot help but believe they are not trusted to throw in crucial situations.
Holbrook is aware of the potential drawbacks.
Having limited options came back to haunt USC in its recent weekend series against Florida. USC used Mincey for two batters before Seddon went two innings in the opening-game victory. Game 2 went 13 innings with Mincey getting one out and Seddon taking the loss by going five innings to match the longest outing of his career.
The decisive game went to Florida primarily because Mincey and Seddon were not available. Florida, meanwhile, provided a stark contrast with the way the Gators used their bullpen. Eight Florida relief pitchers accounted for 17 total innings.
“I don’t think we can throw Seddon and Mincey every game in our league, especially if our starters aren’t getting us to the seventh inning,” Holbrook said. “But that’s what we’ve done.”
As for the message that might be delivered to Taylor Widener, Vince Fiori, Josh Reagan, Reed Scott and Matthew Vogel, Holbrook said it is not a matter of lacking trust in them.
“It’s the fear of the unknown, the fear of putting somebody in a spot that they haven’t been in before,” Holbrook said. “You’re going to make a decision based on comfort and what you’ve seen, the success you’ve seen in the past.”
That success includes a 6-7 record and 3.60 ERA from the three starters in SEC play, and a 3-1 record with a 0.62 ERA and five saves from Mincey and Seddon out of the bullpen.
Holbrook also offers the perfect counter argument to any theory that limiting your pitching staff will prove costly in the long run: USC’s history. The Gamecocks have lived famously over each of the previous five seasons with five or six pitchers carrying the load.
In addition to the three weekend starters each season, the 2010 national champions primarily used Matt Price, Jose Matta and Michael Roth out of the bullpen, the 2011 club defended its national title by relying on relief pitchers Price and John Taylor, in 2012 it was Price and Tyler Webb, and a season ago it was Webb and Adam Westmoreland.
USC has proven it can survive and thrive with five arms in the SEC regular season, NCAA regional tournaments, Super Regionals and the College World Series. The formats are such that more arms are not necessary. Only the double-elimination SEC tournament, which is played over one week, forces teams to stretch their pitching staffs. That helps explain why USC has not won more than one game in the league tournament since 2007.
The regular season is all about positioning yourself for the NCAA tournament. An SEC division championship is the best way to assure a top-eight national seed and home field advantage for regional and Super Regional play. Thus, the importance of every conference game cannot be diminished.
“You go with your (top) guys,” Holbrook said. “That’s the nature of conference play. That’s the nature of SEC play.”
It is why, from this weekend on, USC will rely primarily on the arms of Montgomery, Wynkoop, Crowe, Mincey and Seddon to take them all the way to Omaha, and it is difficult to argue against the strategy.