Funny thing happens when a South Carolina Gamecock pitches a complete-game shutout of hated rival Clemson.
“It seems I have a lot more friends in Columbia now after that Clemson game,” joked Nolan Belcher, the former Greenbrier ace now stepping up as a fifth-year senior in the Gamecocks’ starting rotation. “That Clemson game was definitely very special. It was a rubber-match game and we had to have it.”
Not since Rodney Richey threw a four-hit complete game shutout over the Tigers in 1986 has a Gamecock pitcher been feted for the feat. But Belcher didn’t just stop with his three-hit, no-walk, seven-strikeout performance in an 8-0 win over Clemson on March 3.
The left-hander hasn’t allowed a run in two subsequent wins since. He carries a streak of 26 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings pitched into his scheduled Southeastern Conference start on Saturday against Arkansas (3:15 p.m. – Fox Sports South).
Belcher downplays the scoreless streak.
“I don’t really look at the streaks or whatever,” he said. “I try to go out there and take it one inning at a time and see what happens. Just trying to make quality pitches. I’ve been throwing pretty well, but my defense is playing tremendous and making pretty much every play. Teams have hit some hard balls, but sometimes they go right at guys and sometimes they fall in. Everything seems to be going my way right now.”
That has not always been the case in Belcher’s experience at South Carolina. In January 2011 he felt something snap in his left arm during the first intrasquad scrimmage, and he ended up having to undergo reconstructive Tommy John surgery, ending his junior season prematurely for a team en route to a second consecutive national title in the College World Series.
Belcher returned in 2012 in a mostly relief role, pitching 29 2/3 innings as the Gamecocks returned to a third consecutive CWS championship series. He hadn’t pitched more than 30 innings in a season since he started 13 games as an All-SEC freshman in 2009, finishing with a 4-5 record, 5.33 ERA in 82 2/3 innings pitched with 76 strikeouts and 41 walks.
“I wasn’t frustrated at all,” Belcher said of his bullpen role last season. “I was behind some great left-handed arms that we had last year. I was just trying to do my role to the best of my ability. It was important I came out of the bullpen last year to help the team win.
“Every day I get to compete with the best pitchers in the country. We’ve had one of the best staffs in the country the last three or four years, so there’s no shame in not throwing 90 innings a year for this team. I could have been at a lot of other schools and pitched a lot more, but I chose to come to one of the greatest schools in the country. I’m glad I came here.”
Belcher’s patience, perseverance and loyalty have been rewarded. He started feeling even stronger this preseason and was ready to resume the starting role that was expected of him when he came out of Greenbrier.
“I’m feeling pretty good. Feeling strong. Feeling healthy,” he said. “I threw pretty well in the preseason in the fall. I could tell that my arm was bouncing back better and I’ve had a lot more confidence and could locate the ball better. Kind of had some momentum and confidence going in, it kind of carried on the first part of this season.”
Belcher is 4-1 for the 18-3 Gamecocks with a 1.25 ERA in 36 innings. He has 36 strikeouts to just one walk – that one in the season-opening weekend against Liberty 31 ⅓ innings ago. Opponents are hitting just .206 against him.
In last week’s SEC-opening series against Missouri, Belcher pitched 8⅓ innings in a 2-0 victory, allowing five hits and striking out six while not allowing any runner to reach second base.
He’s been so efficient that his past three starts have been the first (2 hours, 4 minutes), third (2:09) and fourth (2:10) quickest Gamecocks games all season.
Belcher was honored by his teammates at the end of the fall when he was voted to be one of the Gamecocks’ three captains this season.
“That’s one of the things in this program they take very seriously and there’s been a lot of exceptional captains before me,” he said. “To know that your teammates have that much respect for you and believe in you, that the biggest thing for me and very humbling and exciting at the same time.”
An SEC academic honor roll recipient every year, Belcher will graduate in May with a degree in Sport & Entertainment Management. He’s finishing up his final requirement with an internship in the athletics department at A.C. Flora High School. He’s thought about going into college coaching or management or pitching professionally overseas if no major league team is willing to take a chance on the 5-foot-8, 155-pound lefty.
“I’ve gotten some questionnaires from some clubs,” he said. “I’ll guess I’ll have to continue to pitch well to get an opportunity, but I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket with that one. I’ll see where that road takes me. I’m not going to complain about any job.”
For now, he hopes to lead the Gamecocks to a fourth consecutive College World Series.
“I believe we have the talent and bullpen and experience and team chemistry and all the pieces to make it (to the CWS),” he said. “With all that being said, you have to have some luck for sure.”
If he keeps pitching scoreless innings, Belcher will make his own luck and a lot more friends along the way.