COLUMBIA, S.C.—It’s common practice for the top seed in a regional to hold its ace for its second game. That one’s usually the biggest hurdle in getting off to the all-important 2-0 start.
South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook saw things a bit differently, however.
“The first game, there’s some high stakes,” Holbrook said. “If a team gets off to a good start, you could find you’re fighting for your life right out of the gate before you even break a sweat in the NCAA tournament. I wanted to put somebody in there that gave us the best chance to win and get off to a good start.”
That meant throwing Jordan Montgomery, especially after the Gamecocks drew Campbell as their No. 4 seed, one of just two 4-seeds to reach the 40-win mark entering the tournament. The Gamecocks’ Friday night starter all season, Montgomery was already a proven postseason performer to the tune of a 4-0, 0.59 record in NCAA games entering the weekend.
Make it 5-0. Montgomery dominated for eight innings on Friday, allowing two runs on just five hits while striking out nine to lead the Gamecocks to a 5-2 win, their 28th straight at home in NCAA tournament games.
“I have the utmost respect for Campbell,” Holbrook said, “and I felt like this was going to be a nip and tuck game because (Campbell pitchers Heath) Bowers and (Ryan) Thompson, they’ve gotten everybody out all year. So, I was thinking in my mind that the game might be 3-2, 2-1, and if it’s going to be that type of game, I feel very good with the ball in Jordan Montgomery’s hands.”
Montgomery gave up a couple of two-out singles in the top of the first but escaped the jam on a grounder to second, the first of 12 groundouts he’d get on the night. South Carolina’s offense then staked him to 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first, and Montgomery settled in for the long haul.
The junior lefthander’s not going to set any radar guns ablaze and didn’t Friday, working in the upper 80s and topping out at 90 mph on his fastball. He can mix in some early-count breaking balls too. But his changeup is where it’s at, and he went to it with devastating effect against a predominantly righthanded lineup for the Camels.
“Whenever you throw a changeup in fastball counts, it’s hard for hitters to stay back on,” Campbell coach Greg Goff said. “I thought he had great arm speed with it. Had a lot of deception to it. A lot of our guys just didn’t adjust and they just kept swinging at his arm speed. I thought he did a good job. It’s a great pitch. It’s an above-average pitch. We hadn’t quite seen anybody with that good of a changeup.”
“Definitely when I have my changeup, I’m able to go deep in the game,” Montgomery said, “just because it makes my fastball more efficient and I can just throw it in and kind of catch them guessing every now and then. So when they’re looking changeup, I can jam them on the hands.”
Montgomery made one mistake, elevating an 88 mph fastball to Campbell’s Seth LaRue in the fourth that LaRue deposited over the left-field wall, cutting the lead to 3-1 and snapping Montgomery’s consecutive scoreless innings streak in NCAA games at 27 2/3 innings.
No big deal. Montgomery went back to work and calmly retired the next 10 straight hitters.
“That three-run lead we had definitely helped,” Montgomery said. “It was just one run. I knew if I kept hitting my spots, throwing it to (catcher Grayson Greiner’s) mitt, then we would be fine.”
The LaRue homer was the only hit Montgomery allowed from the second inning through the seventh, and he didn’t walk a hitter all night. Montgomery finally yielded in the top of the ninth, getting pulled after allowing a leadoff single to Matt Nadolski on his 116th pitch. Nadolski would eventually come around to score, raising Montgomery’s postseason ERA all the way to 0.93, before closer Joel Seddon ended the game with back-to-back strikeouts.
“When you start postseason play in the NCAA tournament—as you can tell from the crowd, from the energy—it’s a different feel,” Holbrook said. “It’s a different energy. I say it all the time, but the anxiety level’s a little higher. The reason why we feel so comfortable with him is Jordan’s not fazed by too much.”
Nothing could faze him on this night.