As soon as Nolan Belcher entered Game 1 of the College World Series Sunday night for the South Carolina Gamecocks, I knew what was coming. I had seen the left-handed ace win three high school state championships (one at Augusta Christian and two at Greenbrier) with a fastball in the 90s and one of the best curveballs I've ever seen.
But that's not what ESPN commentators Mike Patrick and Kyle Peterson pointed out when Belcher trotted to the mound in the eighth inning with Arizona leading 5-1 and threatening again.
I knew the stats and state championship rings might be mentioned eventually but not before ESPN's best pointed out their initial (and irrelevant) observation.
"He's just 5'8, but his stuff's really good," said Peterson, practically apologizing for Belcher's height.
Patrick had to chime in.
"It's almost gotten to be unusual to see guys who aren't 6'5 out there," Patrick said before bringing up a throwaway comparison to 16-year big league veteran pitcher Billy Wagner, who was also on the wrong end of six feet.
The ESPN voices weren't the only ones who commented about the Gamecocks reliever before actually seeing him pitch. Twitter, which has become to sports what Statler and Waldorf were to The Muppet Show, also got in a jab or two about Belcher.
"Now pitching for South Carolina...Nolan Belcher.. who is catching Jimmy Farter?" tweeted a TV sports anchor from Arkansas.
Then Belcher actually got to pitch.
Over the next two-thirds of an inning Belcher surprised absolutely no one who saw him pitch in Columbia County. He entered the game with two runners on base and one out and left with no further damage on the scoreboard. He gave the Gamecocks exactly what they needed, getting them out of a serious jam with a chance for a ninth-inning comeback (alas, the bats didn't show up in a 5-1 loss).
Though the two-time defending national champions fell to 1-0 in the best-of-three series, Belcher picked up a few more believers. He was shaky at first, throwing two pitches out of the zone before giving up a line drive single to Johnny Field with an 88-mph fastball that loaded the bases with one out.
Belcher recovered quickly, using just one pitch to get a pop up off the bat of Alex Mejia for the second out.
The biggest test came on the next at bat when cleanup hitter Robert Refsnyder came to the plate. The Arizona right fielder had already homered in the first inning and later singled and drew two walks. Belcher, now fully settled in, was up to the challenge. He started with a couple of offspeed pitches, one low and away and another fouled off, before unleashing that slow, looping curveball that completely befuddled high school sluggers in Columbia County years ago. Refsnyder didn't even try to hit the pitch, which was called a ball but proved to hit the top corner of the strike zone on a replay with ESPN K-Zone.
Suddenly, Patrick and Peterson didn't seem interested in Belcher's height. Patrick instead raved about the curveball, commenting that it's so good that it can even fool umpires.
Belcher came back with another offspeed pitch that was fouled off, then switched speeds with a high fastball just out of the zone to run the count full. Facing Arizona's best hitter with two outs and the bases loaded in the finals of the College World Series, Belcher got the strikeout with a changeup that Refsnyder missed completely. He walked off the mound having completed his task.
Though Belcher was dominant in high school, his college career hasn't lived up to the same hype. He missed all of last season after elbow surgery and was only used in 29 innings entering Sunday night. His biggest contribution at the College World Series before his clutch relief appearance had been in the pregame festivities when his teammates surrounded him as he did a backflip before each game.
Now Ray Tanner knows he has another strong arm in the bullpen who can come through in high-pressure situations. The Gamecocks will need such performances tonight in Game 2 if they want to force a Game 3.
Will Belcher be the guy again? On top of his short stature and big arm, I'm told he's a pro at Mario Kart and was the best at miniature golf among his high school teammates. Why not add unlikely College World Series hero to that list? Game 2 starts tonight at 8.