The Fighting Gamecocks Lead the Way

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

This World Series has something for everyone: Up-and-coming stars, clutch heroics, veterans hanging around in search of that long-elusive ring. And if you’re like me, you know the most important question of this series is: How can I make it all about a South Carolina Gamecocks team from more than a decade ago?

On Saturday night, Jordan Montgomery and Christian Walker took the field for a World Series game together. For a second time.

On June 20, 2010, Oklahoma beat South Carolina in both teams’ first game of the College World Series, knocking the Gamecocks into the losers’ bracket, one game from elimination. It kicked off a run of dominance the likes of which may never be repeated in the NCAA tournament.

Two days later, the Gamecocks tagged Arizona State starter Merrill Kelly for eight runs in 1 2/3 innings to survive another day. (This post is going to be riddled with guy-remembering and 2023 postseason tie-ins, so strap in.) Two days after that, South Carolina played another elimination game, a rematch against the Sooners. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth, Walker — the team’s freshman first baseman and cleanup hitter — hit a game-tying single, eventually forcing extra innings. Oklahoma pulled back ahead in the 12th, but Jackie Bradley Jr. drove in the tying run in the bottom of the inning, then scored the game-winner for a walk-off season-saving victory.

Carolina then had to beat in-state rivals Clemson twice in a row in order to advance to the final. Head coach Ray Tanner, running low on pitchers, called on Michael Roth to make his first career start. Roth, Walker’s backup by day and a LOOGY reliever by night, threw a one-run complete game to take the first game. The following night, Walker went 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI to put Carolina into the final.

There, the Gamecocks torched Gerrit Cole and UCLA in Game 1, and Whit Merrifield’s 11th-inning walk-off single won the Gamecocks their first national title in Game 2.

It was a definitive moment in college baseball history, the last game played at the legendary Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the last game before the adoption of the less lively BBCOR bats. (You can hear how jarring the ping of Merrifield’s hit feels now; modern bats just don’t sound like that anymore.) It also opened the dam for South Carolina, hitherto a perennial also-ran, to dominate the NCAA tournament for three seasons.

The Gamecocks repeated the following year, going undefeated throughout the tournament (it’s possible to lose as many as four games and still win the national title) despite a couple close calls. They started the College World Series with a walk-off win, and won two other games in Omaha in extra innings on opponents’ fielding errors. Bradley was rushed back to the lineup after suffering a wrist injury, and Walker broke his hamate bone in the semifinal win over Virginia. He stayed in the lineup, went 4-for-9 over the two-game championship series, and made the all-tournament team.

In Game 1 of the championship series against Florida, Walker stole second in the top of the 11th inning. Mike Zunino threw the ball into center field, starting a two-error sequence that would bring Walker home to score the winning run. (I’ve made liberal use of this screenshot of Zunino staring off into space in frustration over the years as a means of demonstrating sadness or disappointment. And also to annoy Meg, who was a huge fan of the young Zunino, on the basis of his being both a Mariner and Italian-American. This image is currently my avatar in FanGraphs Slack.)

On the way to the 2011 title, the Gamecocks set a new record by winning their 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament game. They would eventually push that mark to 22. By the time the dust settled, they’d rewritten the College World Series record book. Closer Matt Price held the record for wins and appearances, and was tied for second in saves. Roth finished his career as the career leader in College World Series starts and innings (the latter by a huge margin), and was fourth in ERA. And Walker finished with 28 hits, tied with Dustin Ackley for most all-time. (Sorry again, Meg.) He also set a new record for putouts and was third in total bases.

By 2012, a third national championship seemed like a stretch. Walker was one of the younger contributors to the 2010 title-winning team, and that group of upperclassmen had gone pro: Merrifield, Bradley, Blake Cooper, Sam Dyson, and 2011 College World Series Most Outstanding Player Scott Wingo. (So had Bryce Harper’s older brother Bryan, who had transferred in from the College of Southern Nevada and done a stint as a little-used relief pitcher for the Gamecocks.)

Price and Roth both got drafted in 2011 but elected to stay in school. They, along with Walker, led a team that featured six new starting position players, including three freshmen and two first-year JUCO transfers. These included future Detroit Tigers catcher Grayson Greiner, future Bachelorette contestant Chase Vergason, and a rocket-armed freshman shortstop named Joey Pankake.

Montgomery was the pitching staff’s biggest addition. Already a lanky 6-foot-6, he took up a spot in the rotation once back-end bullpen issues led Tanner to move Price — slated to be the team’s no. 2 starter — back to a high-leverage relief role.

Nevertheless, the Gamecocks won the SEC East, and Montgomery got his first taste of postseason action when he took a no-decision in their first conference tournament game. (Vanderbilt’s Mike Yastrzemski drove in the winning run on a squeeze bunt.) Montgomery’s first NCAA Tournament start was against Clemson and both of Carter Kieboom’s older brothers. Montgomery pitched 6 2/3 innings to win that game and put the Gamecocks into the Super Regional.

The winning streak came to an end one step from the Gamecocks’ third College World Series final. Arkansas sophomore ace Ryne Stanek, at the time considered a frontrunner for the first pick in the 2013 draft, shut down the Gamecock offense and left with a 2-1 win. Once again, the Gamecocks had to go through the losers’ bracket.

A rainout the following day led to a midweek doubleheader. The Gamecocks had to win three games in two days in order to advance. Tanner burned Roth in the first game against Kent State, a no. 4 seed (equivalent to a no. 13 to no. 16 seed in March Madness) that had not only made it to Omaha but had just knocked out Florida, the no. 1 overall seed, once they got there. Roth won, as he always did.

That left Montgomery, a 19-year-old freshman, to face Arkansas in prime time. The Montgomery you’ve seen this postseason is the product of the mid-to-late 2010s Yankees pitcher development machine. His arm angle is higher, his delivery much cleaner and much less herky-jerky, and he’s throwing several miles an hour harder than he did in college.

I was in a press conference in Baltimore during the ALDS in which Montgomery was asked who he’d learned the most from as a young pitcher. “I was CC Sabathia’s shadow for about three years,” he said, and frankly you can tell. But back then — and this is the highest compliment I can pay a left-handed pitcher as a Gamecock baseball fan — Montgomery felt like the next Roth. He wasn’t overpowering, but he had great movement and multiple avenues by which to attack hitters. And most of all he was incredibly cool under pressure.

When Montgomery threw eight scoreless innings against the Razorbacks on just 89 pitches, scattering three hits, a walk, and a hit batter, the comparisons to Roth came thick and fast. On the rare occasions Arkansas put a runner on base, he didn’t stay there long: Montgomery induced two double plays, and had two other baserunners thrown out. He didn’t throw a single pitch with a runner in scoring position all night. The two future big leaguers in the Arkansas lineup, Brian Anderson and Matt Reynolds, went a combined 0-for-5 with four strikeouts against the freshman lefty. Also, Walker went 2-for-4 in his third-to-last college game.

It could’ve been the start to a legendary postseason career for Montgomery, but circumstances didn’t line up as well for his generation as the previous one.

South Carolina won another squeaker against Arkansas the following night to advance to a third consecutive final, but there things went south. For two days, Rob Refsnyder turned into Joe DiMaggio. After a blowout loss in Game 1, Roth and Price held Arizona to a 1-1 tie entering the ninth inning before Price — who’d thrown roughly a million high-leverage innings out of the ‘pen over a three-season span — finally gave up the ghost and allowed three runs in the top of the ninth.

Walker led off the bottom of the inning with a single, and the Gamecocks eventually loaded the bases to bring the winning run to the plate with one out, but they couldn’t bring it in. Two consecutive national championships and a wheelbarrow of College World Series records would have to be enough. Roth, Price, and Walker were bound for the pros, and Tanner hung up his spikes to become South Carolina’s athletics director, a post he still holds more than a decade later. Tanner built up so much goodwill during that three-year run he was able to hire Will Muschamp and people still like him.

Because Montgomery never won a national championship and only made one College World Series start, he doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Roth and Price in terms of postseason heroics, but if anything he was even better in playoffs than his older teammates.

Montgomery made five NCAA Tournament starts and went 5-0 with a 0.93 ERA. It could have amounted to more. The 2013 Super Regional round pitted the Gamecocks against a North Carolina team that had almost been upset by Florida Atlantic the weekend before, and in so doing had so thoroughly abused its pitching staff the New York Times wrote about it.

Montgomery won his start against the Tar Heels, but a pair of rainouts bought just enough extra rest for North Carolina’s beleaguered staff, and the Gamecocks went home early. The following year, Montgomery won the first game of the regional, but lost to Maryland the following night to put them in the position they’d faced in Omaha in 2012: Win three straight games in two days, or it’s all over.

That Maryland game featured a call for Griener to sacrifice bunt that I am still pissed about nine years later, and another managerial misstep cost them. Freshman phenom Wil Crowe (I promise, Pirates fans, he was awesome in college) was called to start against no. 4 seed Campbell, burning Carolina’s last weekend starter before the two do-or-die games against a much tougher Maryland team. Crowe threw a complete-game shutout, and hours later the Gamecocks went with a bullpen game and lost 10-1. (Maryland ended up losing to Josh Sborz and the Virginia Cavaliers in the supers.)

Perhaps things would’ve worked out differently had Tanner’s last great recruit made it to campus. The jewel of the freshman class of 2013 was supposed to be a left-handed hitting infielder from North Carolina. But when the Dodgers took him in the first round and went more than 20% over slot to sign him, any hope of his going to college evaporated.

Montgomery did eventually get to play alongside this prized recruit: Corey Seager. But if they do win a title together, they’ll have to settle for it coming at the professional level.

Clutch performances at the college level are almost completely devoid of predictive value when it comes to professional success. But every ballplayer has a story. Walker and Montgomery were mid-round picks who took a long time to turn into household names and, eventually, World Series competitors. But in one specific corner of the baseball world, both were heroes before they signed their first professional contracts.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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deerhaven
6 months ago

…Walker stole second…. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.