Wednesday June 29th, 2011

OMAHA, Neb. -- Half an hour after South Carolina won its second straight national championship, the game's winning pitcher -- and one of the enduring characters of the College World Series -- was playing in the dirt three days before he was to fly to the sandy beaches of Alicante, Spain, to study, in his words, "Spanish and windsurfing."

The trip for junior lefty Michael Roth, just the second pitcher to start two decisive games of the College World Series, is to fulfill a degree requirement for his major in international business, and as he swiveled his cleats to loosen the dirt on the TD Ameritrade Park mound, teammates were scooping it up and filling a clear plastic bag with their very own mementos in what, he explained, was a smart business decision.

"It's an investment," Roth joked. "I've still got a pound of dirt from Rosenblatt in my closet. Getting your jersey framed is like 150 bucks."

On this night when South Carolina finished its two-game sweep over Florida with a 5-2 victory -- it has now won an NCAA record 16 straight tournament games, dating to last season -- Roth allowed two runs in 7 2/3 innings to improve to 14-3 on the season with a minuscule 1.06 ERA over 145 innings. Between last year's College World Series and this one, he now sports a 1.17 ERA over 38 2/3 career CWS innings, the second-best in history among pitchers who logged at least 30 innings. And now the Gamecocks opened TD Ameritrade in the same fashion it closed down old Rosenblatt Stadium last year: with a national title.

Roth's careful memory-making on the mound was notable given the headlines his father, David, generated last week when he quit his job as a car salesman in order to see his son pitch in the College World Series. Michael Roth assured everyone Tuesday night that his father would be OK, and, most of all, that it too was a smart decision.

"I'm sure he'll agree it was worth the trip," said the younger Roth.

That Major League Baseball calls its championship the World Series has always struck some as overreaching for the eligible parties for the prize have always been confined to 30 North American teams. It may be even less apropos to call this the College World Series, though for slightly different reasons, as it's increasingly becoming a sequel to the SEC tournament.

That both schools, Florida and South Carolina, hailed from the league ensured that, even before it started, the nation's college champ would be an SEC school for the third straight year. And now South Carolina has more alltime College World Series championships (two) than SEC tournament championships (one).

While the offense routinely generated runs in ample but not abundant portions -- on Tuesday they scored on a pair of RBI singles, a sacrifice fly, an error and just the fourth home run of the season from freshman shortstop Peter Mooney -- it was the pitching staff that won them games.

Roth, a reliever most of last year whose start in the Series' final game was just his second of the season, became the ace of a staff completely rebuilt in a year. In fall ball coach Ray Tanner recognized a strong group of returning position players -- helpfully, the Gamecocks started five of the same nine position players it started in last year's clinching game with two other starters this year who participated in the 2010 title game as either a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner -- but a severely depleted pitching staff.

"What we were missing was a rotation," Tanner said. " ... Even if you have a good group of core players, you've got to pitch."

The Gamecocks' top two starters in 2010 began minor-league careers -- Sam Dyson was a fourth-round pick of the Blue Jays, and Blake Cooper was a 12th-round selection of the Diamondbacks -- as did reliever Parker Bangs, who went in the 31st round to the Royals. Many other contributors to that staff, as those incessant NCAA commercials remind us, went pro in something other than sports.

Whether the majors' Year of the Pitcher trickled down to a collegiate version or, more likely, whether the NCAA-mandated safety restrictions on the springiness of aluminum bats sucked the pop of offenses, runs were down roughly 20 percent and homers were down roughly 40 percent. The 33 sacrifices in this year's College World Series were the most since 1955.

So, when scoring was unmistakably diminished, the last thing a school wanted to do was rebuild its starting rotation. South Carolina tried several different options for its Nos. 2 and 3 starter spots behind Roth before settling on sophomore Colby Holmes and freshman Forrest Koumas. Of huge importance was also a deep and active bullpen headlined by closer Matt Price, a sixth-round pick of the Diamondbacks, and set-up man John Taylor, a 22nd-round selection of the Mariners. Both Price and Taylor pitched every game of the College World Series and didn't allow an earned over their 16 2/3 combined innings.

"The bullpen excelled like we thought they were capable of doing," Tanner said.

Most impressive was Roth. He doesn't light up the radar gun but seems to have a deceptive delivery, appearing to lean toward first base before slinging the ball to the plate, usually from a three-quarters arm slot.

"He's a tremendous competitor, and he has an idea of what he's trying to do," Gamecocks pitching coach Jerry Meyers said. "He stays within himself and has tremendous pitchability and instincts. If he has to change speeds or change arm slots or do some thing that some other guys can't do as easily, he's been able to do that."

Before each half-inning, Roth stands on the back of the mound in silent reflection, his glove across his heart and his hat dangled low by his left side.

"I pray that God gives me strength and that God keeps me safe," he said. "Especially tonight, I didn't have all that much strength, but he works in mysterious ways."

By beating Florida freshman Karsten Whitson -- the Padres' 2010 first-round pick who chose school over signing and suffered his first college career loss on Tuesday -- Roth remained undefeated against first-round picks past and present, personally improving to 4-0 and leading the Gamecocks to a 5-0 record in such games after earlier victories in games started by Kentucky's Alex Meyer, Vanderbilt's Sonny Gray, Connecticut's Matt Barnes and Virginia's Danny Hultzen.

Not bad for a guy selected in just the 31st round by the Indians earlier this month, although it may not have helped that he was unavailable for much of the two weeks leading up to the draft and even turned his phone off during the event itself after numerous calls about what dollar figure he would need as a bonus to leave school and turn pro.

For now Roth's intentions are to celebrate this title with his team and to board a plan to Europe where, he insisted, "I'm not picking up a ball."

He'll have a weighty decision to make upon the completion of his five-week program in Alicante, but that will come when it comes. Whether it's Tanner's constant preaching about focusing only on the next game or -- more drastically -- his father's decision to prioritize living in the moment at his son's side, Roth has plenty of examples in his life about not getting too far ahead of himself.

"The fans will be talking about the three-peat, but we're happy for the repeat," Roth said. "We'll talk about a three-peat come next year or something."

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