Who’s got next? Friday night starter tops priority list

nwhite@thestate.comJanuary 25, 2013 

South Carolina's Colby Holmes delivers a pitch during game two of the Columbia Super Regional between the Gamecocks and Oklahoma at Carolina Stadium, Sunday, June 10, 2012.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

  • KEY DATES The Gamecocks, who are ranked No. 7 in Baseball America’s preseason Top 25, will scrimmage Saturday at 1:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Today: First day of spring practice Feb. 15: Opening Day vs. Liberty March 1-3: USC-Clemson series March 15: SEC opener at Missouri March 22: SEC home opener vs. Arkansas May 21-26: SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala. May 31-June 3: NCAA regionals June 7-10: NCAA Super Regionals June 15-26: College World Series, Omaha, Neb.

Over the past three seasons — with two ending in national championships — the top starting pitcher for South Carolina set the tone every Friday night in SEC play and all the way through the NCAA tournament.

What Blake Cooper accomplished in 2010 and Michael Roth in 2011 and 2012 remains nothing short of amazing. The right-handed Cooper went 13-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 20 starts, while the left-handed Roth compiled 14-3 and 9-1 records over 20 starts both seasons with ERAs of 1.06 and 2.43.

That three-year average comes out to a 12-2 mark with a 2.06 ERA. Neither pitcher got knocked out of the game early over those 60 combined starts, and they did it without the kind of overwhelming stuff that gets pitchers picked in the first round of the MLB draft. Instead, they relied on location, smarts and toughness to consistently get the best college hitters out.

“It’s the intangibles with the last two guys that we’ve had that locked down in the Friday night spots,” USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers said. “They weren’t the hardest throwers, and they didn’t necessarily have the best breaking balls, but their pitchability was as good as anyone’s. You can’t ask for more quality starts and more consistency than what you got out of those two guys.”

Those two guys, by the way, are now pitching professionally, Cooper in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, and Roth in the Los Angeles Angels system.

So whose turn is it next?

Senior right-hander Colby Holmes and sophomore left-hander Jordan Montgomery look to be the leading candidates for the top spot in this season’s rotation. Holmes enters his final season with a career 16-5 record and 3.66 ERA, while Montgomery went 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA in his freshman season.

“Colby and Jordan have been in the rotation. They’ve been on a big stage,” Meyers said. “We’re confident in those two guys who have the most experience, both in postseason and conference play.”

Holmes pitched five shutout innings in the Super Regional-clinching win against Oklahoma last season, while Montgomery tossed eight shutout innings in a CWS elimination victory against Arkansas. But Meyers said it’s unrealistic to think that Holmes or Montgomery will match Cooper and Roth.

“Those guys are legendary. We’re not trying to equal those guys individually with any one guy,” Meyers said. “It’s just a group effort. If we can be a little deeper or someone can rise to the top like those two guys did, we’re waiting for that to emerge.”

Holmes said he is aiming for double-digit victories as he embraces the challenge of facing the other team’s best pitcher under the Friday-night lights.

“They’re two great pitchers. They were big leaders on the team. I’ve had the experience the past couple of years, and maybe I can contribute the same as they did,” Holmes said.

The 5-foot-11 Holmes, a Conway native, mixes his pitches well, best demonstrated by his eight shutout innings in the NCAA regional win against Manhattan last season.

“I’m not an overpowering guy. I’m not tall. I don’t throw the ball by you, but just having a fastball I can spot up and having four pitches I can throw for strikes is big,” he said. “Throwing in the (College) World Series the past couple of years has been big, too, and I really think I’m ready for the Friday night role pitching in front of all our fans.”

The 6-4 Montgomery, a Sumter native, gradually pitched his way into the rotation in his first season, as the coaching staff noticed his work ethic and unflappability to go along with his great control. He discovered the importance of the No. 1 spot while pitching the day behind Roth.

“If you can get a win that first day, it makes it a lot easier to get one out of the two on the next two days,” Montgomery said.

Having one of these two pitching behind the other on Saturdays is important as well, Meyers said. He said depth is as significant as having one top guy.

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