South Carolina baseball fans finally saw the Nolan Belcher that coach Ray Tanner has seen since last fall. The 5-foot-8 freshman left-hander from Augusta, Ga., handcuffed No. 4 Arkansas Saturday afternoon at Carolina Stadium in USC’s 9-1 victory.
“Nolan Belcher had everything going,” Tanner said. “He was special.”
Although he entered the game with a 0-1 mark, 5.70 ERA, and 24 hits and 15 walks allowed through 23ð innings, Tanner never lost faith and sent him to the mound for another SEC start. He responded by tossing four-hit baseball over 8Ð innings with three walks and career-high nine strikeouts.
“He’s had some very good innings, but he’s been the victim of bad innings that tarnished his starts,” Tanner said. “He didn’t do that today.”
Belcher, who threw 126 pitches while lowering his ERA to 4.50, knew what made the difference for him.
“I did a better job of mixing my pitches,” he said. “I had my changeup going there.”
He appreciates getting the opportunity to keep taking his turn in the rotation.
“That’s real important to know the coaches, coach Tanner and coach (Mark) Calvi, have confidence in me,” Belcher said. “It makes you feel a lot better knowing they want you out there.”
Tanner isn’t afraid to trust his freshman.
“I’m not going to say he’s going to have that kind of appearance all the time, but he’s certainly capable of that,” he said.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn was impressed.
“Their pitcher did an outstanding job,” Van Horn said. “He threw four pitches for strikes. He kept us off-balance. He mowed through our lineup the first five innings.”
Belcher baffled Arkansas (21-6, 9-2 SEC) with five hitless innings. He allowed a walk in the first, third and fourth innings but pitched around them to cruise into the sixth inning with five strikeouts. Scott Lyons broke up the no-hitter with a one-out single to center in the sixth.
His teammates gave him so much support, however, that he didn’t have to sweat losing the no-hitter. Nick Ebert hit his 10th and 11th homers of the season to drive in three runs, and Adam Matthews added a pair of hits, including an inside-the-park homer in the eighth inning. It was the speedy freshman’s first homer of his USC career, when he quickly circled the bases after his rip took a long carom off the left-field fence.
But even Ebert understood Belcher was the story of the day.
“Belcher came up huge,” said Ebert, who has a team-high .375 average and 32 RBIs. “We needed that so bad from him. You don’t expect that from a freshman.”
The No. 28 Gamecocks (20-9, 5-6 SEC) broke the game open with four runs in the fifth to up the lead to 7-0, as the Razorbacks’ pitching fell apart with three walks and a hit batsman. Whit Merrifield delivered an RBI double, and Matthews knocked in another run with a single in the middle of a rally that sent 10 batters to the plate.
The teams will vie for the series win at 1 p.m. today.
“That was a big win for our confidence in the SEC,” Matthews said. “It shows how capable we are of playing good baseball.”