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USC loses its closer to injury

While the rest of its bullpen was in questionable shape, the South Carolina baseball team knew it had ace reliever Curtis Johnson. On Wednesday, the Gamecocks lost him.

Johnson will miss the rest of the season with a torn labrum and rotator cuff, the team announced.

The senior was leading the team in earned run average, and was the Gamecocks’ go-to reliever in critical situations.

“Not only is he a quality pitcher but he’s a great, great teammate,” USC coach Ray Tanner said Wednesday night. “You just hate losing guys like that but it is part of the game.”

The news came one day after Johnson made his first appearance in 10 days. He struck out two but yielded a game-winning double to Furman in ð of an inning. His extended time off between appearances was due to a tender arm, but, according to the team, the season-ending injury occurred Tuesday.

“It’s early now, but it appears after the MRI, he had some labrum issues that were maybe old and then he did the rotator cuff (Tuesday) night. So maybe he had been overcompensating.”

In a release, USC said Johnson, a senior from Sumter, plans to apply for a medical redshirt and return next season.

“He should be full-strength in six months,” Tanner said. “It’s not as devastating as a Tommy John.”

His absence is a blow to the bullpen, which has no obvious candidate to fill the closer’s role. Johnson himself was new in that role; he replaced Jeff Jeffords and Wynn Pelzer.

Johnson went 1-0 with a save and 1.83 ERA in 19ð innings spanning five appearances. In one outing, Tanner used Johnson for six innings, a sign of his confidence in Johnson and doubts about other relievers.

Entering Wednesday’s game, only one other pitcher (Parker Bangs) had pitched at least 10 innings in relief.

Bangs, a 6-foot-3, redshirt freshman, might get the first look in extra innings when a right-hander is needed. Left-hander Craig Thomas, a redshirt junior who has started two games, also has pitched in some key situations this season.

The other candidates include junior lefty Alex Farotto, senior right-hander Sean Wideberg and senior right-hander Brandon Todd.

Before the season, the Gamecocks hoped right-hander Jordan Costner would emerge as the setup reliever. He has yet to pitch due to an arm injury and is not scheduled to return for several weeks.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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