Watching freshman Jordan Montgomery pitch on Saturday, it was difficult to decipher that he just turned 19 in December.
The excruciating 5-4 loss on Good Friday to Tennessee put an enormous amount of pressure on Montgomery, a 6-foot-3 left-hander making his first career SEC start against the Vols.
The 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year in the Palmetto State delivered a career-defining performance, limiting Tennessee to one run on three hits with seven strikeouts and no walks in eight innings.
The freshman from Sumter was lifted at the start of the ninth after throwing 99 pitches, 65 for strikes. Consistently throwing his devastating changeup and fastball for strikes, Montgomery faced just 27 batters, three over the minimum.
He surrendered a leadoff triple in the top of the first and the runner quickly scored on an RBI groundout. But Montgomery settled down, retiring 24 of the final 26 batters he faced.
"I didn't really think I was ready, then I quickly figured I could do very well pitching against these guys," Montgomery said. "I had a little more pressure out there today because I knew it was up to me to determine if we could win the series. I just came out and did the best I could."
The only hits (and the only base-runners) the Vols managed after the triple were a leadoff single in the fifth and a harmless two-out single in the sixth.
Prior to the fifth-inning hit, Montgomery retired 12 straight hitters, a streak reminiscent of his outing against Appalachian State on March 14 when he was touched for four runs in the first inning on a pair of homers.
"I missed my spot on that fastball with the leadoff triple, but I settled down after that," Montgomery said. "I started throwing my changeup and they were just swinging through it, so I kept throwing that and mixed in some of my off-speeds. I just tried to keep us in the game."
Montgomery's impressive outing lowered his ERA from 3.27 to 2.70 (nine earned runs in 30 innings). Coming in, his longest outing in 2012 had been 5 2-3 innings at The Citadel.
In fact, that had been his only career stint longer than five innings. Montgomery has not allowed more than five hits in any of his seven appearances this season.
Ray Tanner has seen a lot of pitchers come and go during his 16 years as coach, but rarely has a true freshman hurled a near complete-game masterpiece comparable to Montgomery's performance.
"That was a tremendous effort for Jordan Montgomery," Tanner said. "It's very rare for a freshman in the SEC to go out there and throw eight innings as well as he did tonight.""
Montgomery's reward? A (permanent?) spot in USC's weekend rotation. In effect, USC has one Sumter pitcher (Montgomery) replacing another (Matt Price).
Thus, his next start - the sixth of his career and the second in the SEC - should come at 4 p.m. on Saturday when USC hosts Mississippi State.
"I would say that he deserves an opportunity to be out there," Tanner said. "He continues to impress and certainly no one is going to argue the fact that he deserves to be out there on the weekend."
Montgomery had to be sharp because USC again left more than a dozen runners stranded on the base paths. One night after leaving nine on base, USC added 15 to the season's count, giving it 103 runners stranded in 11 SEC games.
"These guys are trying to be a good team and they are trying to be good offensively, but it just hasn't worked out for us," Tanner said. "I guess we left 15 on tonight, but it felt more like 27 to me. That's just part of baseball sometimes. You just go through cycles that are very difficult for you."
USC is averaging 4.4 runs per game in SEC games while yielding an average of five runs per contest.
"We need to get our pitchers more support," Tanner said. "This week we went back and did a little historical review of the season, trying to think about how many runs we were scoring. Then we proceeded to go out and make it difficult for our pitchers."
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