South Carolina will start freshman Jordan Montgomery in tonight’s elimination game
OMAHA, Neb. — Late Monday night, South Carolina’s bus was stuck in traffic on the way back to the team hotel, just a few blocks from TD Ameritrade Park. The Gamecocks had just lost 2-1 to Arkansas, snapping their 22-game NCAA tournament winning streak and putting them one loss away from being eliminated in the College World Series, which they won the past two years.
The bus ride that normally takes a couple minutes lasted about 25, and it felt different than almost every postgame bus ride these Gamecocks had ever experienced in Omaha, where they last lost in their 2010 World Series opener. This is usually a chatty team, but Monday night, coach Ray Tanner heard a disconcerting amount of silence. He likes when his teams reflect on the bus ride after losses, but this was too funereal, especially since USC wasn’t blown out.
As the bus pulled up to the hotel, Tanner addressed the team, which must win three games in three days, starting today (8 p.m., ESPN) against Kent State, to reach the best-of-three World Series final.
“Hey, let this go,” Tanner recalled telling the players. “We played hard. We didn’t play quite well enough. We didn’t score. But let this go right now. It’s a loss. That’s all it is. Let’s flush it and get ready to play. Let’s be excited. I know you can’t go into the lobby and celebrate, but let’s let it go. There’s still life here.”
He said Tuesday that his mindset when addressing the players was: “I’ll stay up for everybody. You don’t have to stay up. Go to sleep and let’s get it done the next time we play.”
After the team got off the bus, Tanner returned to his hotel room and thought about what just happened in the ballpark a few blocks away.
“I stayed up for a while,” he said. “I looked back at some of the video. I don’t know that I needed to do it, but I did it.”
In the hours that followed, he decided to start freshman left-handed pitcher Jordan Montgomery tonight rather than ace senior lefty and World Series veteran Michael Roth on three days of rest. It is a critical decision, one that observers will question if USC loses tonight with Roth in the dugout.
Roth started on three days of rest in each of the past two national championship- clinching victories, and allowed three combined earned runs in 122/3 innings. Roth will be available in relief tonight if needed, but USC’s coaches want to save him for a potential Thursday start against Arkansas.
Montgomery is much fresher than Roth, having not pitched since June 3, when he helped USC clinch the NCAA tournament regional with a win over Clemson. In Montgomery’s past two starts, including the Southeastern Conference tournament against Vanderbilt, he allowed seven hits and three earned runs in 112/3 innings. In his previous three starts, he gave up 26 hits and 15 earned runs in 131/3 innings.
Montgomery, who was USC’s Saturday starter for most of the season, learned he would start tonight at the beginning of Tuesday’s practice.
“I’m just glad they’re trusting me with the ball,” he said. “I feel fresh now.”
Montgomery is, above all else, a strike-thrower. He has 51 strikeouts and nine walks in 662/3 innings this year.
“You can’t just throw strikes and get hit and give up runs,” said USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers. “But he could do some things at an advanced stage for some freshmen, being able to throw some offspeed pitches for strikes and staying pretty steady even when he was getting hit. I think he can handle any situation just as well as anyone else at this point.”
There are, of course, more experienced players on this team who know what it’s like to win three games in three days in Omaha. USC had to win four games in the losers’ bracket in 2010, the final three in a three-day span, in order to reach the final series.
“Just because we’ve been through it before,” said junior first baseman Christian Walker, “doesn’t make it any easier.”