South Carolina freshman pitcher Nolan Belcher walked out to the mound on Saturday wondering how this game against the SEC leading Arkansas Razorbacks was going to go. He left the game after dishing out the most dominating performance by a Gamecock pitcher thus far in the season.
Belcher allowed four hits in over eight innings of work as Carolina evened the series with a 9-1 win over the Hogs.
“It may not always be the case in baseball, but normally it starts and ends with the guy on the mound or the guys you put on the mound. And certainly Nolan Belcher just gave us a tremendous outing today and gave us a chance to win the game,” Tanner said.
The left hander entered Saturday’s game with a 0-1 record and 5.70 ERA. He had given up 15 earned runs on 24 hits in seven appearances and had a 22-15 strike-walk ratio.
However, those numbers remained on the stat sheet as Belcher dealt a career high 8.2 innings work and issued just three walks while striking out a career high nine. His first hit given up didn’t come until the sixth and the lone run came on back-to-back hits in the eighth.
But when the day started, Belcher was anything but sure about what lay ahead.
“I was out in the bullpen throwing (before the game) and that was probably the worst I’ve ever done. I was just (thinking), ‘It’s going to be a long day.’ But luckily things turned around when I got on the mound,” Belcher said. “I just did a little bit better job today of mixing pitches. I had my changeup going for the most part.”
Belcher mowed down the Arkansas lineup to start with five strikeouts in the first eight batters. He then induced the Razorbacks (21-6, 9-2 SEC) to hit into fly balls and ground outs. After he gave up the first single of the game to Scott Lyons, Belcher retired seven straight including his other four strikeouts.
It was an effort Tanner was very happy to see after a rocky start to the year for the freshman.
“He’s had some very, very good innings. But he’s had the bad inning. He’s been the victim of the bad inning. It’s kind of tarnished his starts,” Tanner said. “But today he didn’t go through that. He was very special. He got all his pitches over both sides of the plate.”
The outing got easier as the USC bats got louder, and the team wasted no time in giving Belcher all the run support he would need. A walk to DeAngelo Mack in the first inning brought up first baseman Nick Ebert with two outs and he would make Arkansas starter T.J. Forrest pay. Ebert took the first pitch he saw over the fence in the leftfield bullpen to give Carolina a 2-0 lead.
Already up 3-0, the Gamecocks (20-9, 5-6 SEC) put extra distance on the board in the fifth as the team batted around and scored four runs on just two hits. The inning started with Bobby Haney being hit by a pitch, and he was sacrificed over on a bunt by Jackie Bradley, Jr. Whit Merrifield’s RBI double started the scoring and was followed by back-to-back walks to Mack and Ebert that loaded the bags. An RBI single by pinch hitter Adam Matthews delivered another run. A wild pitch from reliever Christian Kowalchuk put the next run on the board, and the final run came from a walk issued to Scott Wingo with the bases full. In all, USC scored four runs in the inning on just two hits with three walks.
And that was all the pitcher nicknamed “No-No” would need.
“That was very important. It’s a lot easier pitching with a lead than when you’re pitching from behind,” Belcher said. “We had a big inning (in the fifth) when we put up four runs. That was real important too 'cause you know you could just relax and go out there and keep pounding the zone.”
After the Hogs scored in the top of the eighth, the Gamecocks erased any chance of a possible rally with a little magic of their own. Ebert hit a two out solo homer to leftfield for his first multi-home run game as a Gamecock to make it 8-1. That’s when Matthews dug in for his at-bat and brought the crowd to its feet. The true freshman hit a ball high and deep to left, but it looked to be staying in play. That’s when the leftfielder started to his left before having to come back right to try and make the catch. The ball caromed off the top of the wall and halfway into the field as no fielders could make a play.
Matthews never broke stride and raced around the bags for his first home run as a Gamecock and the first inside the park homer at Carolina Stadium.
“I don’t think I’d had an inside the park home run since little league, and I don’t even remember that. I think I’ve tried a couple of times but been thrown out,” Matthews said. “After I hit it, I thought it was a routine pop fly, I just got way up under it. But after rounding first I saw it was on the wall when looking up. I didn’t know if it had barely got out or was off wall and that’s why I never broke stride. (Coach Chad) Holbrook kept sending me so I just kept running.”
For the Gamecocks, Sunday’s game will be a chance to take their second straight conference series and even their record back to .500 in league play. Tanner’s hope is that the win is the shot in the arm the team needed as they start down the home stretch.
“I said to the guys before the game today, I asked them, ‘How many of you guys felt good?’ Well nobody did. You only feel good if you win,” Tanner said. “We didn’t deserve to win last night but we still wanted to win. We’re at home and we’re trying to fight like the dickens to get back to .500 in the league. We’re one game closer now.”
- The inside the park home run for Matthews was the first by a Gamecock since Garris Gonce hit one against Mississippi State in 2001 at the SEC Tournament.
- Ebert’s multi-home run game is the third of the season by a Carolina player.
- Mack’s hit streak ended at 10 games as he finished 0-for-3 with two runs.