CLEMSON — So many days last fall, the bald strength coach in his 20th season at South Carolina and the gangly left-handed pitcher in his second walked into the weight room at Carolina Stadium, next to the Gamecocks’ clubhouse.
The coach, Billy Anderson, and the pitcher, Jordan Montgomery, both knew how Montgomery would be viewed this season in that clubhouse — as the Gamecocks’ ace, their replacement for Michael Roth, who was so reliable every Friday night.
They also knew the role was not gifted, that the increased innings workload meant Montgomery had to bulk up his beanpole frame, especially in the least-discussed but perhaps most important part of a starting pitcher’s body — his legs.
Every time Montgomery pitched in the fall, his routine with Anderson was the same: stack the weights on the squat bar, step under it, and prepare for the pushing and pain that followed. Day after day, squat after squat, Montgomery’s leg strength increased. After last season, he could squat 215 pounds. Now, he squats 250.
Friday night at Clemson, those fall days remained with him, as he relied on his fastball more than usual and befuddled the Tigers by throwing the best game of his career and leading USC to a 6-0 win in the opener of a traveling series.
USC is now 19-7 against Clemson since the start of 2007, including 7-2 since 2011. The series continues at 2 p.m. today at Greenville’s Fluor Field and concludes Sunday at USC.
Montgomery’s changeup is his best pitch, but he didn’t need it often Friday. His fastball and strength carried him through eight innings, 113 pitches (74 strikes) and a gem of a line: three hits, two walks and a career-best nine strikeouts. He had a 0-1 count on 15 of his 28 batters.
“I guess my work paid off,” he said, remembering his sessions with Anderson.
He has now excelled three straight big starts, dating to last year’s NCAA tournament Regional game against Clemson and College World Series matchup with Arkansas. Though he is still young, the signs of a potentially special career in the making are now obvious to anyone.
“He had better command (Friday) than he had his previous two starts this season,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “When he’s throwing strike one and he’s ahead in the count, he’s awfully tough. He’s an unflappable kid. He doesn’t mind tight moments. The bigger the situation, Jordan tends to pitch better.”
Montgomery accepted the praise in his typically understated manner.
“That’s always a good thing to know, that I’m not going to buckle under pressure, I guess,” he said. “But even when the pressure is not on, I should be pitching my best.”
He is certainly not Roth yet. Any such comparisons are unfair right now. Montgomery threw 742/3 innings last season. How will he handle a Friday starter’s workload over a grueling season? Roth threw 137 innings in 2012.
But like Roth, Montgomery never flinched Friday when Clemson, down 4-0, led off the seventh with a double and walk.
Montgomery then threw five combined pitches to the next three batters, all of whom flied out.
“That was the biggest inning of the game,” Holbrook said. “I think we all took a deep breath after that inning. We felt like we were in control of the game.”