COLUMBIA — In the two weeks since South Carolina baseball coach Ray Tanner moved Matt Price from starter to closer, the role he occupied last season, the Gamecocks have felt the ripple effects of Price’s absence from the second spot in their starting rotation.
The uncertainty started with sophomore Forrest Koumas lasting just one inning and allowing six runs in an 8-2 loss to Florida, the night after Price jogged out of the bullpen to the roars of 8,200-plus at Carolina Stadium.
It continued in last weekend’s series at Vanderbilt, as freshman Evan Beal took over the No. 2 starting spot. Beal wasn’t nearly as ineffective as Koumas, though he did allow four runs in 31/3 innings and the Gamecocks fell 12-4.
Neither had previously started a game this season. Now, as USC prepares to host Tennessee this weekend, Tanner is turning to someone who has: freshman left-hander Jordan Montgomery, who has four midweek starts and two relief appearances. In 22 innings pitched, Montgomery’s earned-run average is 3.27, and he has 20 strikeouts and two walks.
USC (21-8, 3-6 Southeastern Conference) enters its fourth league series of the season still trying to dig out of a 1-5 start — a process that started by winning two of three at struggling Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks are 7-0 when tonight’s starter, ace lefty Michael Roth, pitches. But since Price vacated the No. 2 spot, USC has lost both games by a combined 14 runs.
Montgomery hadn’t been tested against a challenging opponent until Sunday’s series finale at Vanderbilt, which USC won 6-4 in 13 innings — a potentially pivotal victory for the Gamecocks going forward. Montgomery replaced Price to start the 12th inning, with the game tied at four, after Price allowed just one hit and one run in six innings.
“Just relax,” Price recalled telling Montgomery before he went in.
Montgomery, a baby-faced kid who was South Carolina’s high school player of the year in 2011, finished the game with a mature performance: two hits, no runs, three strikeouts and a walk.
“We felt like from Day 1 in the fall, Jordan brought a very good presence and poise for a true freshman,” Tanner said. “He threw a lot of strikes. He’s been a guy that makes you earn what you get. He can hold runners. His fastball has continued to climb. He’s been in the upper 80s, around 90 now a little bit. He didn’t start that way at the beginning of the fall. We feel good about where he is right now.”
Saturday’s game will prove if Montgomery can translate the two innings against Vanderbilt — his first work against an SEC team — into a quality start against Tennessee (19-10, 5-4).
s for Price, he is back in the bullpen for good. Or at least that’s the plan. He talked to Tanner before the Vanderbilt series and said he only wants to be a reliever if he is going to throw in situations with the game on the line. Tanner agreed with him. The rationale with keeping Price in the bullpen — which was due in part to inconsistent late relief — is that he likely will help the Gamecocks more by throwing twice in a three-game series rather than once.
“I feel like our team, when I come into a game, feels different about the situation, even if they’re behind a couple runs,” Price said. “I feel like we get a little spark whenever I come into the game.”
Price prepared physically in the offseason to become a college starter for the first time, by strengthening his legs and increasing his endurance — things that he believes will still help him now, and make the midseason transition from starter to closer easier than the opposite would be.
“Just from my workout plans, I think it’s made going back to the bullpen a little bit easier,” he said. “Being more in shape and having a stronger core has really helped me out in the pen.”