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April 21, 2011It's happening again.
And there's no reason to expect that it will stop.
Remember how marvelous it was in 2010 when Blake Cooper won game after game after game? A pitcher who was always good, but not necessarily great, was outstanding in his final year of college ball, leading the SEC with 13 wins as he spearheaded South Carolina's run to the national championship.
As the stories came out revealing how passionately Cooper took the approach to his senior season and then parlayed it, everyone got a glimpse into the dogged perseverance the Gamecocks' Friday-night starter possessed. After his arm and body gave out during the stretch run in previous seasons, Cooper was determined not to let it happen again, so he lived in the weight room all summer and when he wasn't lifting weights, he was running the steps at Carolina Stadium while wearing a 20-pound weighted vest.
He was great because he wanted to be great. Then his career ended, fittingly, with him hoisting the championship trophy with his teammates, and he departed leaving a legacy that some thought would never be matched.
Cooper wasn't the most talented pitcher the Gamecocks have ever had, not the most honored. He probably won't have any kind of lengthy professional career.
But no one will ever forget his final year, when he was the linchpin because he willed himself to be it. Nobody, the popular thought was, will ever do what Cooper did in 2010 again.
Less than a year later, that thought is being re-written. The season still has 20 games remaining, plus the postseason, but watching Michael Roth pitch thus far has been a stunning mirror of Cooper's heroics.
And due to Roth's incredibly easy approach to the mental side of the game, it should continue.
"You see him in the dugout and talk to him sometimes and you think he's not even playing," coach Ray Tanner said after Roth's latest gem, a virtuoso three-hit, eight-strikeout showing against then-No. 1 Vanderbilt, the SEC's top-ranked offensive squad. "He's that loose and that comfortable. This is a game for him. He's going to go out and have fun and try to do well, but at the end of the day, it's still a game."
Roth feels no pressure to keep being the staff ace because he's simply not that kind of person. If ever there was a man who deserved the "don't sweat the small stuff" label, it's Roth.
Cue the clips of him dancing in the dugout between innings, and rallying his teammates with different poses and cheers for a third out. Watch him stifle a giggle in the post-game as teammate Scott Wingo says the fans were full of "glitter" tonight - Roth was dared to use the same term for his ESPN postgame interview after beating Tennessee a week earlier, but couldn't work it in.
He may get drafted in June, but it looks like he isn't thinking about that. Professional potential may be limited for a left-hander who tops out at 88 miles per hour, but whatever the circumstances, Roth will have the same approach.
"I enjoy pitching on Friday nights and getting the series started," Roth said, in the same tone he probably uses for an international business (his major) presentation. "I try not to get into all that, the hype about it. I just try to go out there and do my thing, just throw the ball and not mess around with the resin bag too much."
Something's working - Roth's pinpoint command and cunning remembrance of every hitter's tendencies have him leading the SEC in wins (eight) and ERA (1.24). He's the league's biggest inning-eater, with 65 1-3 frames, third in strikeouts (62) and fifth in opponents' batting average (.209).
The wins have stockpiled so quickly that the "miracle" tag applied to Roth's College World Series debut last year have faded. It's become increasingly apparent that what he did against Clemson in his first career start, on the game's biggest stage, wasn't anywhere close to a fluke.
"He's accepted his role going into the year, he's thrived in it, he's been really good," Tanner said. "I didn't expect him to be where he is, numbers-wise, but it's been great to watch. Our guys rally around him, feel good about him when he's out there."
The comparisons to Cooper have been rampant, which are natural, and Roth doesn't mind being matched side-by-side with the 2010 leader. But by the time he's done, he may surpass Cooper - Cooper's season will always be remembered, but if this keeps up, Roth's will be right there as well. Each will stand on its own merit as one of the greatest single-season performances in USC history.
Even Roth may have to break the veneer and accept that.
But not until.
"If you'd have asked me probably in the fall, if I'd have still been pitching on Fridays, I probably would have said I doubt it," Roth said. "If you'd have asked me a year ago, I'd have laughed at you.
"It's a lot of fun."
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