Michael Roth dazzles again, pitching South Carolina to within one win of the College World Series
COLUMBIA — One last time, the door to South Carolina’s bullpen swung open at 8:02 p.m. Saturday. Michael Roth embraced catcher Dante Rosenberg, sipped water from a cup, tossed a warm-up ball to a fan leaning on the railing above the bullpen, and made the long, slow walk across the right field grass, toward the first-base dugout.
Fans seated behind the dugout rose as he approached, offering a standing ovation. It was, at once, acknowledgement of everything he has accomplished in his career and encouragement for what they hoped he could do for the final time Saturday, in his last start at Carolina Stadium.
Roth, a senior, gave them every bit of what they wanted, as he has so often in the postseason. Now, after Saturday’s 5-0 victory over Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament super regional opener, the Gamecocks are one win away from the College World Series, with a chance to clinch a spot tonight at 7.
For 72/3 innings, Roth stood on his mound, dazzling the crowd and a national television audience, baffling the Sooners with his dropped-down, three-quarters release point. They found little success against his mid-80s fastball, hardly overpowering, and flailed time and again at his changeup. Roth allowed six hits, all credited as singles. He struck out three batters and walked two. Two runners reached second base. Another reached third. None of them scored.
It was Roth as these fans know him best — crafty, resilient, viciously effective. He established his fastball on both sides of the plate early, allowing him to rely on changeups and sliders.
“When I’m able to do that,” Roth said, of solidifying his fastball, “that’s when I can pitch the way I want to.”
He threw 126 pitches, 74 strikes. His last pitch was a single to right field. Pitching coach Jerry Meyers stepped out of the dugout and strode toward the mound. The infielders crowded around Roth, patting him on the butt. They tried to think of a compliment or two, but “there’s not really much to say after a performance like that,” said first baseman Christian Walker.
Tyler Webb jogged out of the bullpen. When Roth handed the ball to Webb, the fans rose for Roth once again, with feeling. A line of teammates high-fived him as he entered the dugout. The fans kept cheering. Roth ducked into the dugout. The fans kept cheering. His teammates turned and told him the crowd wanted a curtain call – his first and last here. The fans kept cheering.
And for the final time, about two and a half hours after the bullpen door opened, he obliged them, ascending the dugout steps, doffing his cap. The roars rose into the muggy night sky.
“I wonder how that feels,” USC coach Ray Tanner thought.
Tanner had worried about how his team, not an offensive monster, would perform against Oklahoma’s deep pitching staff. The Gamecocks eased his concerns and took a 3-0 lead by scoring in three distinct ways in the second inning against Oklahoma starter Jordan John, on three consecutive batters – Nos. 6, 7 and 8 in the lineup.
LB Dantzler ripped a double to the right-center field gap, Erik Payne sprinted home from third on a wild pitch to Tanner English, and Chase Vergason looped a sacrifice fly that scored Dantzler. John left after the second inning. The Gamecocks didn’t need any more runs, but added two in the seventh.
Saturday was their 26th NCAA tournament game since the start of 2010. They have won 25, including 20 straight, five better than the previous record, which they set last season in winning their second consecutive national championship. The only team to beat them: Oklahoma, in the 2010 College World Series opener.
Two games later, USC beat Oklahoma 3-2 in 12 innings, leaving Sooners coach Sunny Golloway to wonder, as he said Friday, “How many opportunities do you get to win a national championship?” USC can thank Roth for theirs. The night after the 12-inning game, Roth – an unknown sophomore who reluctantly transitioned from being a position player – threw a complete game one-run, three-hit jewel in a victory over Clemson.
The images USC coach Ray Tanner will remember of Roth – and there were so many more Saturday night – certainly capture his brilliant postseason pitching; his NCAA tournament earned-run average in nine starts is now 1.10. But they also capture his candidness, leadership and light-hearted demeanor.
When players chafed at something Tanner did, Roth was the one who plopped down on Tanner’s office couch, draped his arm over the back and said, “I want to talk to you about something.” And Roth is the only one who would post a picture on his Twitter page, two hours before Saturday’s game, showing only his unbuckled uniform pants around his ankles, rumpled atop his cleats, with the caption: “Getting ready for my last home start.”
It almost ended after seven innings. His was missing high, and he looked tired, Tanner told him in the dugout. Roth insisted he felt fine, that he could return for the eighth, for one final inning.
“You’ve earned that,” Tanner said. “Get back out there.”