OMAHA, Neb. — On a June night two years ago, a South Carolina sophomore left-handed pitcher who few people outside of Columbia knew stepped on the mound at Rosenblatt Stadium, tasked with starting an elimination game against Clemson in the College World Series. The performance that followed announced Michael Roth to the college baseball world and started his run as one of the most successful pitchers to ever play in Omaha.
BY THE NUMBERS 1993 – The last time, before Michael Roth on Thursday against Kent State, that a pitcher threw a complete game in the College World Series and allowed two hits or fewer. Long Beach State’s Mike Fontana did it in 1993. 8-0 – Arizona’s record in this NCAA tournament. The Wildcats, now in the championship series, are trying to become the second straight team to go undefeated in the tournament. South Carolina did it last year and was the first team since Miami in 2001 to do it. 53 2/3 – Roth’s career innings in the World Series, a record he set Thursday. The old record was 47, shared by Ohio State’s Steve Arlin (1965-66) and Texas’ Greg Swindell (1984-85).
Thursday night, three miles down 10th Street from Rosenblatt, USC freshman lefty Jordan Montgomery stood on the mound at TD Ameritrade Park and stared down an elimination game of his own, against Arkansas. Few who watched were intimately familiar with him, though some surely raised their eyebrows when close-up television shots showed his boyish face.
This was the arrival moment for Montgomery.
He acquitted himself well this season, but experienced the usual freshman naivety. Before he threw in his first Southeastern Conference game, in April at Vanderbilt, he thought the school was located in North Carolina, not Tennessee.
Though he hadn’t experienced the magic of USC’s back-to-back national championships, Montgomery on Thursday played a significant part in the Gamecocks’ push for a third straight title — and in the process, made sure everybody who saw him wouldn’t soon forget his face.
Montgomery kept USC alive in the World Series, as he helped the Gamecocks beat Arkansas 2-0 by allowing three hits in eight innings while striking out six and walking one. He threw 89 pitches, 57 for strikes, and faced one batter over the minimum — just as Roth did earlier Thursday while throwing a complete game in a 4-1 win over Kent State.
Sixty-four percent of Montgomery’s pitches were strikes, compared to 66 for
“He’s watched Michael Roth,” said USC coach Ray Tanner. “Hopefully, what you saw (Thursday) will be a sign of things to come in the next few years.”
The Gamecocks are one win away from advancing to the best-of-three championship series against Arizona, which begins Sunday. They play Arkansas again at 9 p.m. today on ESPN. Arkansas will start ace righty D.J. Baxendale — a tough challenge for the Gamecocks.
But getting here did not come easily. The Gamecocks on Thursday became the first team to play two full games on one day at the World Series since 1980.
While Montgomery was magnificent — light years better than his nine-hit, five-run game at Arkansas earlier this season — he got some help at the end of the game. He didn’t walk a batter until the eighth, when he put the lead-off hitter on. The next batter ripped a ground ball at first baseman Christian Walker, who stepped on first and threw to second for a tag out.
The biggest difference from the first Arkansas game to Thursday?
“It was all about location,” said Tanner. “He was able to stick some fastballs in today.”
Montgomery’s performance — though on a bigger stage than he had ever experienced before — shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise. In his previous two starts, in the SEC tournament and NCAA tournament Regional clincher against Clemson, he allowed just seven combined hits and three runs in 11 2/3 innings, as he bounced back from three straight rough starts, Arkansas being one of them.
While solidifying his spot in the starting rotation this season, Montgomery developed a reputation as a strike thrower. He entered Thursday with 51 strikeouts and nine walks, and his 5.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked 20th nationally and third among freshmen.
He lived up to his reputation early Thursday. He retired 12 consecutive batters before hitting Bo Bigham in the fifth inning. Arkansas had a chance to chip away at USC’s 2-0 lead in the fifth, but Bigham tried to run from first to third on a single to left field. English threw him out to end the inning.
At that point, Montgomery was already doing his best to match Roth’s sterling performance earlier Thursday, and perhaps even the 2010 Clemson game, a complete game, one-run, three-hitter. Montgomery faced one batter over the minimum through five, struck out five, walked nobody and threw just 58 pitches, 38 for strikes.
USC began the day with a brilliant performance from its best pitcher, Roth. He threw a complete game two-hitter with zero walks and eight strikeouts. The World Series hadn’t seen a performance that dominating since 1993. That was the last time a pitcher threw a complete game and allowed two hits or fewer.
Roth faced 28 batters, one more than the minimum, and retired the final 22 batters in order after a second-inning single.
He threw 106 pitches, 70 for strikes. He had two three-ball counts in the entire game, which ended with USC lowering its team ERA to 1.68 in this NCAA tournament.
In the eighth inning, Tanner picked up the phone and called down to the bullpen. Even though Roth was cruising, Tanner wanted setup man Tyler Webb and closer Matt Price to get loose, just in case.
Webb and Price took their sweet time getting up from the bullpen bench and played a little catch. The bullpen door never opened. After the game, Tanner told Webb and Price, “You guys didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry.”
Their reply: “Roth was on the mound. Why would we need to be in a hurry?”
Roth has now started seven World Series games, tied for the record, and he is 4-0 with a 1.58 ERA, 0.90 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), 35 strikeouts and 15 walks — a resume that started on that June night, two years ago, three miles up 10th Street.