The series between South Carolina and Mississippi State will feature one of the finest pitching match-ups of the season on Friday.
With both teams standing at 5-7 in the conference and fighting to reach the .500 mark, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs are each seeking to get the series started on the right foot on Friday when USC's Michael Roth (3-0, 1.98 ERA) squares off with MSU's unbeaten Chris Stratton (7-0, 2.54).
Roth has three no-decisions in four SEC starts, including last week's 5-4 loss to Tennessee at Carolina Stadium. He allowed three runs on six hits in 6 1-3 innings with no walks and three strikeouts in that game.
Roth leads the SEC in innings pitched (54 2-3) this season and opponents are hitting just .174 against him, the second-best mark in the conference. His 1.98 ERA is the sixth-best in the league, while his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a sparkling 4-to-1 (47 strikeouts, 11 walks).
Two weeks ago, Roth became the 20th pitcher in school history to tally 20 or more career victories. His career record is 20-5.
Mississippi State coach John Cohen understands the challenge his club faces with Roth, one of the top pitchers in the country, on the mound for the Gamecocks, especially since most of the players on the Bulldogs' roster have never played a game in Columbia.
"He just flat-out knows how to pitch," Cohen said in a conference call on Thursday. "He is one of those overachieving guys who understands how the body works. He has an unbelievable change-up. He's been on the mound in national championship games. He gave up a chance to go to professional ball a year ago to come back for his senior season. There's not a lot he hasn't done in college baseball. It will be a huge task for us. He's one of the great pitchers in SEC history."
Stratton, a junior from Tupelo, Miss., began the season in the Mississippi State bullpen until being promoted to starter when SEC play began. In four SEC appearances, Stratton is 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA, in 28 2-3 innings, with 40 strikeouts.
"Chris is going to have days when he feels great and he's really pitching well," Cohen said. "And there will be some days when he won't be as good, but certainly his consistency has been as good as anybody in our league. We're thrilled for him to be throwing on Friday night for us. This is what we envisioned when he was part of our very first recruiting class at Mississippi State."
Last week, Stratton allowed four runs on six hits with six strikeouts in six innings against Vanderbilt. His finest outing in conference play came on March 16, when he limited LSU to one run on four hits in 8 2-3 innings while striking out 17. But he departed with the score tied 1-1 and Mississippi State fell, 3-2, in 10 innings.
"What he's doing for us even when he's not pitching is incredibly exciting for our program," Cohen said. "He's leading some youngsters with him."
USC freshman left-hander Jordan Montgomery (2-0, 2.70) will face Mississippi State right-hander Kendall Graveman (2-1, 2.68) on Saturday. As expected, right-hander Colby Holmes (4-0, 2.56) will start on Sunday for the Gamecocks, while MSU's starter for the finale is to be announced.
The weekend series is a clash between two of top three pitching staffs in the conference, in terms of ERA. USC is second at 2.86 with the Bulldogs one spot behind at 2.93. They are two of the three conference schools with staff ERAs under 3.00.
USC and Mississippi State are also second and third in total strikeouts with 311 and 304, respectively.
"The ability to make hitters swing and miss at this level is huge," Cohen said. "Four years ago, we didn't have that ability. Now we're as good as anybody in the country in that area. I love where our pitching staff is, especially the talent part of it."
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