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February 13, 2013
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook announced on Tuesday that his Friday pitcher is sophomore Jordan Montgomery, to be followed on Saturday by senior Colby Holmes. The duo has enough veteran leadership and big-game experience that Holbrook really couldn't go wrong with either of them on Friday, and the other one on Saturday.
That should stand throughout the season. The two are the pitchers that Holbrook and pitching coach Jerry Meyers want out front, and that deserve to be out front. The No. 7 Gamecocks need poise and savvy on the mound as they begin life post-MR - after Michael Roth.
The key to rewarding that trust and staying there is avoiding what each had bouts of last year - inconsistency.
While the two ended with solid numbers (Holmes was 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA while Montgomery was 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA), each had periods during the year where their performances were anything but smooth. Holmes began well, was hit hard during the middle of conference play, regrouped to sparkle through the rest of the regular season and then was dynamite in the NCAA Regional and Super Regional, before being ineffective in two starts at the College World Series. Montgomery had a habit of being lights-out for three or four innings until one base hit dropped in, then he would struggle to regain command. That became three disastrous performances at the end of the year before he turned it around and shone in the postseason.
Every pitcher goes through spots where they can't find the plate with both hands and a road map. Even Sandy Koufax lost 13 games in a season - twice. Roth barely did, though, and that's quite the reputation to live up to.
Montgomery knows it's coming. Being a left-handed junk-baller just like Roth was, it's inevitable.
"I have a lot of similarities with him," the towering but still baby-faced hurler said during preseason practice. "He's a great pitcher. That's an honor to be compared to him."
Montgomery got past his foibles of letting one simple base knock throw off his rhythm by finally lasting past the fifth inning in a March game at The Citadel, where he picked up his first collegiate win. That turned into some marvelous starts, like eight innings of three-hit ball vs. Tennessee and 6 1-3 innings of five-hit ball at Mississippi State.
Then came the bad times. The kid that was nicknamed "Gumby" before he ever threw in a preseason game was as rubbery as his namesake. Alabama blistered Montgomery for 10 runs and 11 hits, which was followed by five runs and nine hits at Arkansas. Georgia continued the barrage with four runs and six hits, knocking Montgomery off the mound after three frames.
The then-freshman didn't get discouraged. He kept trying to be confident, turned in five innings of two-hit ball at the SEC tournament and then beat Clemson in the NCAA Regional. Montgomery didn't pitch in the Gamecocks' two-game Super Regional sweep of Oklahoma, but then got the ball in a pressure-packed situation.
USC had to battle through the loser's bracket of the College World Series, and after a rainout, had to play its second game of the day only a few hours after the first. Facing a red-hot Arkansas squad that had treated him rudely at its field, Montgomery was brilliant through eight innings, allowing a scant three hits, one walk and no runs. He struck out six in what became a 2-0 win before handing off to fellow Sumter native Matt Price for the save.
Montgomery didn't pitch again in Omaha, but the postseason performances, plus Montgomery getting stronger during the offseason, inspired the USC coaches. He'll get his chance this year.
"My mechanics are a lot smoother now that I'm stronger," Montgomery said. "I can get my arm through easier with less hitch in my mechanics now. After last year and all the pressure that was on me in those games, I just went out there and pitched. I don't worry about the pressure. I just try to pitch my best."
Holmes had nearly the same journey as Montgomery. After fighting through a regular season where he ran more hot and cold than the taps on the bathtub, Holmes overcame a bad end to the regular season with two brilliant performances.
Against Manhattan in the NCAA Regional, Holmes no-hit the Jaspers through 7 2-3 innings before giving up a single. That was before a rain delay, depriving him of a complete game, but he had done his job.
Facing Oklahoma in the Super Regional, Holmes was being counted on to clinch the CWS trip. He responded with one hit and no runs in five innings, striking out three and walking two, before another rain delay again cost him a chance to finish.
Holmes was as confident and rolling as he's ever been going to Omaha, but couldn't repeat the performances there. Against Arkansas in USC's second game, Holmes was lifted in the fourth inning after allowing four hits and two runs. In the rematch, although USC won the game, Holmes was yanked after two innings, three hits and two runs.
A solid pitcher with the tools to succeed, Holmes had been undone in the past by giving up home runs. In the CWS last year, he didn't give up any long balls but didn't have what was working so well in getting to that point.
But that was last year. Holmes and Montgomery will be the Gamecocks' top two pitchers to begin this season. Holbrook is hoping they'll finish that way.
"Jordan Montgomery and Colby Holmes have kind of distanced themselves as our top two guys," Holbrook said. "We feel good about our front two guys."
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