Montgomery leads new-look staff after earning 6-1 record last season
The South Carolina baseball team’s pitching staff last season took the nation as well as themselves by surprise. But as quickly as they burst onto the scene, they were gone, with the likes of Nolan Belcher, Tyler Webb and Adam Westmoreland graduating out of the program.
In 2014, one of last year’s rising stars is back and looks to be the unquestioned leader of the Gamecocks’ rotation. Junior lefty Jordan Montgomery went 6-1 a year ago with a 1.48 ERA and put an exclamation point on his season with a complete-game shutout in South Carolina’s 8-0 win over UNC during the NCAA Super Regionals before the Gamecocks would eventually fall short in the series.
Entering this season, the ace of the Gamecocks’ staff said his mentality is vastly different from any of his previous years with the team.
“I guess I have a different thought process on this team just because I’m one of the leaders,” Montgomery said. “I feel really close with this team. We all hang out all the time, really tight-knit guys.”
In 2013 — his first year as a regular starter — Montgomery faced some early-season injury trouble. But the junior said he spent the offseason getting stronger, and while he knows sometimes injuries are unavoidable, his importance to this year’s team has forced him to do all he can to stay healthy.
While Montgomery will presumably get the ball on Fridays, South Carolina only has one other solidified starter at the onset of the season. Sophomore Jack Wynkoop was another pleasant surprise in his first year as a Gamecock, earning a Freshman All-America nod from Collegiate Baseball to go with All-SEC Freshman honors from the conference.
Coach Chad Holbrook said that while conventional wisdom would dictate sending Wynkoop to the mound on Saturdays, he feels the importance of Sunday wins could warrant holding off on the sophomore until the last game of a weekend series. Among South Carolina’s pitching rotation, more roster spots are vacant than filled, but Holbrook attributes that not to a lack of competence, but a number of down-to-the-wire battles for playing time.
“These pitchers are going to have to have an open mind,” Holbrook said. “They’re not exactly going to know their specific role on opening day, because, as coaches, we might not know it. Some kids react different to a different uniform walking into the ballpark.”
One of the Gamecocks’ most publicized examples of uncertainty among pitchers is freshman righty Wil Crowe. The Pigeon Forge High School (Tenn.) product has earned the respect of coaches and teammates alike for his ability as well as his competitiveness.
Holbrook said Crowe will certainly see his fair share of time on the mound, and it wasn’t until the day before the season opener that the coach decided his freshman would be a starter rather than coming out of the bullpen.
“Wil’s very talented,” Holbrook said. “He’s got starter stuff, and he’s got a closer’s mentality. But he’s a horse and he can shoulder a lot of innings and he wants to throw. He wants to get us into the seventh inning. That’s just his makeup and his mentality.”
Crowe falls into the mix of new players and returning pitchers with limited experience. Returners like juniors Evan Beal and Joel Seddon have both seen meaningful innings for South Carolina and will factor into Holbrook’s very flexible rotation as the season progresses.
But according to Montgomery, no matter who is on the mound for the Gamecocks they have a common goal. And he, for one, still has a bad taste in his mouth about last season’s elimination before reaching the College World Series.
“I definitely take it as a chip on the shoulder,” Montgomery said. “We’ll remember that once that time comes around. I feel like we’re more prepared this year. We’re ready; a little tougher. We’ve prepared, so we’ll just see what the season unveils.”