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February 17, 2012
You've seen them.
Those guys that eat, drink and breathe baseball. They live baseball. You swear when you look them in the eye, you can see small red stitches around the corneas and you just know that they hum themselves to sleep to the theme from "Baseball Tonight."
It's often inspiring and disturbing to watch these individuals. The first because odds are, you'll see an all-star play, game or career look routine, the second because when things don't go their way, that person is liable to resemble the latest rocket launch to outer space. They're so wrapped up in the game that the game consumes them, leaving no room for anything other than baseball.
Those are the guys that make up the sport, the Hall of Fame lists, the award ceremonies. Those are the ones that are used as examples of how to - and sometimes how to not - approach the game.
Then there's Michael Roth.
Senior majoring in international business/marketing. Left-handed junk-baller. The poster child for The Eagles' "Take it Easy."
And one of the best players in the country.
Just don't ask him to revel in it. Not that he would if you did.
"Sure, I want to win," South Carolina's Friday-night ace said a day before the No. 2 Gamecocks were set to begin the 2012 season. "It's still very important to me, but at the end of the night when I lay down in bed, it's not going to determine whether that day was a success or failure in my eyes, or in my life."
Don't get the wrong idea. Roth isn't flippant about the game and doesn't act like his give-a-damn is busted. But he treats the game as a game, refusing to let it dictate his every waking moment.
That he succeeds and does it so much is a constant surprise. Roth doesn't throw that hard, doesn't have an eclectic mix of pitches, doesn't have the jump-off-the-chart resumes that some of the country's other pitchers have.
But he knows what to throw and when to throw it, where to place it and has the greatest intangible that any player in any sport could have. Pressure rises, and Roth ignores it. There has never been a situation that he couldn't handle, due to him placing the significance and intensity of the game somewhere back of the business strategies, advice for the NCAA's treatment of student-athletes and Spanish that rattles around in his head.
"It does seem that way," said coach Ray Tanner, who has watched Roth blossom from a part-time hitter and one-inning pitcher into an All-American. "I've heard him say this before - 'It's just a game. Let's have some fun out here.'"
No one's had more fun of a ride than Roth over the past two years.
As Tanner and pitching coach Mark Calvi huddled late into the night and the calendar flipped to June 25, 2010, they had no idea what they were going to do. The Gamecocks had fought through the loser's bracket of the College World Series to stay alive, but now they were faced with reality - their pitching in tatters, knowing they had to win two games to advance and were gone with a loss, they were against a wall. Oh, and the opponent they had to beat, out of 300 some-odd potential opponents, was the one that some feel they aren't allowed to lose to - Clemson.
It was a move that made sense on paper. Clemson started six left-handers in the lineup. Roth, who had made 34 appearances that season, was left-handed, creating the natural advantage. The only problem was that Roth's season-long outing was 3 1-3 innings, pitched against Bucknell three weeks ago in the opener of the NCAA regionals. He hadn't thrown more than that since 2009, and hadn't lasted more than 13 outs in his entire collegiate career.
"But we figured," Calvi said in 2010, "that if he could just get us through their lineup once, maybe we could get a run or two and hold on. We had a best-case hope of three innings."
Calvi walked down the hotel hallway and told Roth, who was watching TV, that he would make his first career start the next day. In the College World Series, against USC's archrival, with the season on his shoulders. Roth didn't break eye contact with the screen.
Tanner rode the elevator to the lobby with Roth the next day and took the opportunity to pump up his starter. "You ready?" he asked. "What you got in you today?"
Roth looked at the coach as if he'd just grown a catcher's shinguard out of his head.
"I don't know!" he incredulously replied.
Thinking he needed to keep a routine, Roth went to Rosenblatt Stadium and kept it up. He took batting practice. He took infield practice. Throughout, third baseman Adrian Morales was screaming at him to get his tail off the field and go warm up. Early arrivers at Rosenblatt Stadium gawked at the sight and figured that USC was in deep, deep trouble.
Nine innings later, Roth sat at the press table, grinning, staring at a stat sheet. The question was a quite-natural what he was feeling after throwing a complete-game three-hitter in a 5-1 USC victory, keeping the Gamecocks alive.
"Well, I actually didn't know what 'BF' meant, with 33," Roth said. "I didn't know what that was."
Informed that it stood for 'batters faced,' Roth's face lightened.
"Oh!," he said. "Usually, it's like, three or four."
That start became another, against UCLA in Game 2 of the national championship series, where he allowed six hits and a run in a no-decision that the Gamecocks eventually claimed. After the hoopla of USC's first national championship settled down, Tanner didn't hesitate - Roth would be given the chance to be a starter in 2011.
Although he was considered a No. 2 starter behind Tyler Webb for fall and preseason practice, Roth got the call on Feb. 18, 2011, to start Opening Day. He gave up two runs in 5 2-3 innings, but got the win; seeing no need to stop what was working, Tanner had him out there the next Friday as well.
Roth ended the regular season 10-3 even though he was often facing terrific lineups who were relying on their own ace pitchers. He won four more games in the postseason, including the national-championship clincher over Florida on June 28, and finished the year 14-3 with a 1.06 ERA in 145 innings.
After turning down the major leagues over the summer, Roth is back for his senior year. The pressure is mounting.
"I just think it comes from not getting too wrapped up in the situation at hand," Roth said. "We're lucky enough to play in front of what, 6,000, 8,000 every game? When you get used to a situation like that, you don't get too high on your highs or low on your lows, you stay pretty even. That's the key to the game, and to life as well."
One gets the feeling that there ought to be a notebook somewhere of "Roth-isms," starting with the infamous "BF" line. Some others from last year:
* "When you think about the game of baseball logically, the batter shouldn't be able to hit that ball."
* "I thought I did OK, because I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night."
* "We were talking after the Alabama game and (my mother) was like, 'You know what? You're working a lot slower than I like you to work. I want you to pick up the pace.'"
This is also the same guy who told a room full of reporters, after winning his second straight national championship, that the major-league scouts could talk to his mother if they wanted to negotiate. He was going to Spain to learn some international business tips and how to windsurf over the summer.
"It's something that he's gotten used to, I guess, as years have gone by," said senior outfielder Adam Matthews, Roth's roommate for four years. "It just kind of comes with who he is and what he's achieved. He's learned how to control himself and that emotion and take in everything around him. He's a fun guy to be around and he likes to joke around. It keeps him loose."
Matthews sometimes sees Roth's personality change, but not because of baseball. It's usually because of exams or some other academic issue.
"He'll get, I guess, moody around exam time," Matthews said. "But he's good with time management. He knows how to get his rest in and he knows how to get his book work in when he needs to. He's so calm when it comes to baseball, when it comes to pitching. He can just calm himself down."
Perhaps he's the first player to ever use the game to be calm, saving the excitement for the rest of his life. Tanner sees it as preparation for the future - while Roth has said that last summer definitely showed him that he would like to play baseball as a career, he also has a solid backup plan.
"There are very few guys in all of college sports who make a living playing their sport. It's just the reality of the situation," Tanner said. "I think he probably understands that better than anybody. I think we all live the dream once in a while, been down that road and think maybe this will happen or that will happen he looks at reality. 'This is what I'm doing now, have fun with it, make the most of it, and don't put a lot of undue pressure on yourself.'"
Roth has already displayed that he hasn't lost his touch over the summer, despite everybody and their brother picking him as an All-American, watch-list member and anything else they can think of. During a recent scrimmage, Roth pinch-hit and lined a double into the gap. Despite two runs scoring on the double and knowing that he was a valuable commodity, Roth cut second base and sprinted toward third, arriving safely with a slide that nearly gave Tanner a heart attack.
"Of course he had to go sliding into third," Tanner groused, with a wry grin. "I was waiting on him to pop his hamstring."
But that's Roth's approach. One realizes that it would probably be the same if Roth was 0-10 instead of 17-5 for his career, with two shiny rings sitting on his dresser.
Calm as ever, he'll take the mound today as USC begins its quest for a third national title. He's the eye in the Gamecocks' hurricane.
If he knows it, he's not saying it.
"You try to go out there and give your team a quality start every night and that's what I'm going to try to do," Roth said. "I guess it's just a skill that I was able to acquire. It's just something where I think you just get used to being in a situation like that."
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