In My Opinion

Southpaws shine for Gamecocks

The StateJune 10, 2013 

— Tris Speaker, Casey Stengel and Earl Weaver generally are regarded as the fathers — or maybe grandfathers — of platoon baseball in the major leagues. The concept from the outset was to present the best matchups of right-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers and visa versa by adjusting your lineup accordingly.

The idea long has been that a hitter can better see — and, presumably, hit — a curveball that is bending toward him rather than one that is breaking away from him. Sometimes, the righty-righty and lefty-lefty matchups cannot be avoided.

Such is the case in the Chapel Hill Super Regional, where North Carolina features a batting order of six left-handed hitters against a South Carolina pitching staff whose primary five pitchers are all left-handed.

USC used four left-handers in the opening two games of this series, will start freshman left-hander Jack Wynkoop in Tuesday’s deciding game, and is likely to use only left-handers out of the bullpen if needed. That prospect had UNC coach Mike Fox wondering if the Gamecocks will ever use a right-hander.

“Do they have one?” Fox said with a laugh.

When told of Fox’s remark, USC coach Chad Holbrook laughed back.

“We’ve got a few (right-handers), we just don’t have to use them against those guys, or try not to,” Holbrook said. “You just look at their splits, lefties versus righties, it’s scary. It’s scary.”

The Tar Heels are batting .308 as a team, but a quick glance at the statistics sheet can be deceiving. Upon further inspection, one finds UNC is hitting a robust .335 against right-handers and an average .277 against left-handers.

“It is a challenge, obviously,” Fox said. “Left on left. Right on right. That’s part of baseball. Our guys have got to just hang in there and do the best they can, try to move the ball and hope to get one to fall.”

UNC generally has not hit from either side of the plate in the first two games. Its three right-handers, which include switch-hitter Skye Bolt, are batting a mere .208. Its six left-handers are batting .233.

Had it not been for USC’s poor fielding in the opening game, UNC would have managed four runs in what became a 6-5 Tar Heel victory. Then UNC was shut out in Game 2 against USC left-hander Jordan Montgomery.

Fox is quick to point out that the lefty-lefty matchups are difficult enough, but are compounded by the fact that USC’s plethora of what used to be called “port-siders” are immensely talented.

“Gosh, I mean, to have your top four or five guys, it’s not just left-handers now. These are good left-handers,” Fox said. “There’s good left-handers and then there’s really good left-handers. They have really good ones.”

In games that matter this season, USC has reduced its pitching staff to a quintet of left-handers. Nolan Belcher, Montgomery and Wynkoop have manned USC’s weekend starting rotation with Adam Westmoreland as the middle man out of the bullpen and Tyler Webb as the closer.

Those five have totaled 30 of USC’s 43 wins, 20 of its 22 saves and 65 percent of the staff’s innings pitched. The five have a combined earned run average of 3.23, compared to a 4.59 ERA for the remainder of the staff.

“The more left-handers an opponent has, I would think with our left-handed pitching, it’s an advantage to us,” USC coach Chad Holbrook admitted. “It’s awfully hard to hit a baseball whether it’s coming in from a righty or a lefty. But left-left is awfully difficult for some guys.

“We like our lefties versus a left-handed dominant lineup or a right-handed dominant lineup. The matchups look a little bit better for us since we do have so many left-handed pitchers, but that doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

What it does guarantee is that no matter how much UNC works through USC’s three available left-handers for Tuesday’s game, the Tar Heels still might not see a right-hander out of the Gamecocks’ bullpen.

Late in Montgomery’s four-hit gem Sunday, USC had Vince Fiori warming up. Fiori carries a 1-0 record and 3.92 ERA. He has walked four and struck out 21 in 202/3 innings this season.

Fiori is, of course, left-handed.

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