South Carolina entered its season-opening baseball series with a question mark punctuating its starting rotation. After strong performances from Michael Roth, Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland, it’s fair to say that question has been answered — for at least one week.
In the sweep of Santa Clara this past weekend, the three left-handers combined to toss 171/3 innings and compile a 1.04 ERA. They allowed 10 hits and four walks while striking out 15. Roth and Webb picked up victories in the first two games. Westmoreland was not the pitcher of record when the Gamecocks broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday.
While USC coach Ray Tanner wasn’t ready to forecast that those three would comprise his starting rotation when SEC play begins in mid-March, he liked what he saw.
“It’s still a little bit too early to tell,” Tanner said. “All of our starters gave us solid outings this weekend. You can say they deserve to start again next weekend. Maybe they will, but I’d still like to see a little bit more from some other guys.”
Left-handers Steven Neff and Bryan Harper, who both pitched in relief over the weekend, and right-hander Colby Holmes, who did not pitch against Santa Clara because he was recuperating from strep throat, remain in the mix to claim a starting role.
But with no games scheduled until Southern Illinois comes to town Friday for a three-game series, it appears Roth, Webb and Westmoreland, who pitched for the first time since the 2009 season due to Tommy John surgery, have earned another go-around.
The key to replacing the 38 starts and 240 innings contributed by Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson is consistency. If Roth, Webb and Westmoreland pitch effectively into the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, they likely will stay where they are. If they can’t, Harper, Neff and Holmes will get opportunities to grab one of the weekend spots.
Last season the No. 3 spot never was settled, with senior Jay Brown and Webb primarily taking turns in the role. Roth took over in the College World Series, and his scintillating outings against Clemson and UCLA helped earn him the No. 1 role to begin this season.
It helped that whenever the starters struggled last season, a deep bullpen usually stepped up. Except for Neff’s tough inning Friday, when he allowed three runs on six consecutive hits, the bullpen picked up where it left off last season.
The Gamecocks used nine pitchers in relief against the Broncos, which allowed Tanner to get a good look at his staff. Price, the All-American closer, got his first save of the season Saturday, senior right-hander John Taylor pitched out of a jam Friday, and hard-throwing freshman righty Forrest Koumas recorded two strong innings Sunday and gave a glimpse of why the coaching staff likes his “live” arm so much.
With the pitchers allowing one run over the final two games, the offense didn’t have to provide too much support. But USC’s returning players more than did their part, especially Jackie Bradley and Christian Walker. USC’s No. 3 and 4 batters combined for 13 hits in 24 at-bats with two homers and nine RBIs.
And the defense played well, too, with no errors over the final two games. New shortstop Peter Mooney made a terrific play in the hole to end Saturday’s game with the tying run on base, and Matthews threw out a runner at the plate from right field Sunday that kept the game scoreless in the sixth inning.
So while the offense and the defense look to be more solid, it’s going to keep coming back to starting pitching to determine how successful USC can be this season, especially when the conference schedule begins.
If Roth, Webb and Westmoreland – a junior, sophomore and redshirt sophomore, respectively – can keep providing the answer, with Harper, Neff and Holmes providing lifelines if new questions arise, the Gamecocks should be just fine in their march to reach the NCAA tournament for the 12th consecutive season.