Roth keeps on confounding hitters
There was a brief moment in South Carolina's opening game in this College World Series where the Florida Gators had Michael Roth. They had him. Justin Shafer led off the bottom of the third with a single to right, Vickash Ramjit followed with a single of his own, and it started to feel like feeding time for these Gators.
Two outs later, with runners on the corners, Florida's No. 2 hitter, Preston Tucker, whacked a ball to left and Gamecocks freshman Tanner English broke in when he needed to break back. English tried to leap up, hoping and praying his outstretched 5-foot-7 frame would be enough, but the ball evaded his glove, soaring over his head and settling at the wall. A two-run knock for Tucker, a 2-0 lead for Florida, an imperfect beginning for the two-time defending champs.
"The camera zooms in, and you can tell [Roth's] a little pissed," Mississippi State head coach John Cohen said.
Another hit or two would have put an early dent into the Gamecocks. The Gators had 10 fingers on Roth's neck; they just needed to squeeze.
"But then he wiggles off that hook," Auburn assistant coach Link Jarrett said. "That's him."
You know how it ended. Roth lasted 6 1/3 innings, allowed seven hits and three runs, walked three and struck out three. The Gamecocks won, and the Gators lost and would be eliminated by Kent State two nights later. It was another feather in an Omaha cap filled with them and, well, it was vintage Roth.
The most infuriating thing about facing the 6-1, 210-pound southpaw isn't his pure stuff, it's how he teases hitters with it. Roth pitches like the prankster who attaches a string to a $20 bill, hides behind a bush, and keeps pulling the cash back every time an eager hand tries to scoop it up off the sidewalk.
"Sometimes he pitches like he has you in an 0-2 count early on," said Jarrett, whose Tigers faced Roth twice this season and, in the first meeting, bled him for four runs and 137 pitches in 6 2/3 innings. "He tries to get you to fish for bad contact. It can be frustrating."
That's not to say Roth can't win by looking a team straight in the eyes. Sure, deception and movement and his ability to manipulate a strike zone are big parts of his success. Those things might even make up the majority of why he's 8-1 with a 2.60 ERA and 96 hits allowed in 121 1/3 innings in the metal-bat minefield of college baseball. But, no, they're not all of it.
Roth will pitch at 83-85 mph but can touch 89 or so. He'll spin an average breaking ball, but he'll drop down below his normal three-quarters arm slot with it, giving it another dimension and creating a sweeping action that can cause a left-handed hitter to consider hauling an oar to the plate in his next at-bat. He'll drop down on his fastball, too.
"But his changeup is really his pitch," said a National League area scout who has seen Roth multiple times this spring, including his start against Clemson in the NCAA regionals. "It has late action, and hitters try to do too much with it and pull it. If he's hitting spots [with his fastball] and the change is going, I don't think he thinks he can be beat."
Cohen's Bulldogs got close to beating Roth when they faced the senior on April 13 in Columbia, S.C. Essentially they did beat him, putting up five earned runs -- the most Roth has allowed in a start this season -- and chasing him in the sixth inning after just 83 pitches, although the Gamecocks won 7-6.
He wants to see what the umpire's strike zone is, and then he allows them to expand it because he doesn't have big misses. He might go 1-0 or 2-0, but his misses are just off the plate or just down. It gets him a bigger zone. Guys who get tiny zones are guys who miss big, and the umpires just shut down. If the ump is expanding away, Roth will wear you out.
--Mississippi State coach John Cohen
"He goes fastball, changeup first time through the order and tries to get quick contact, so we stood guys right on top of the plate," Cohen said. "He wants to see how you treat the strike zone and if you'll chase soft away. We wanted to get his pitch count up, but it's hard."
It's a tough trick because nothing Roth throws is easy to pick up out of his hand. His fastball will sneak by a corner of the strike zone, appearing much harder than the mid-80s velocity at which it travels, and his off-speed pitches look like good offerings to hit until a batter is swinging and the ball is bouncing somewhere comically far beneath his barrel. It's his precision that offers up few mistakes to be taken advantage of, and it's his precision that gets umpires to succumb to that damned-if-you-swing, damned-if-you-don't approach of his.
"He wants to see what the umpire's strike zone is, and then he allows them to expand it because he doesn't have big misses," Cohen said. "He might go 1-0 or 2-0, but his misses are just off the plate or just down. It gets him a bigger zone. Guys who get tiny zones are guys who miss big, and the umpires just shut down. If the ump is expanding away, Roth will wear you out."
The umpires don't completely concede their power against Roth. He's walked 40 guys this season, a fact Oklahoma head coach Sunny Golloway knew all about when the Sooners faced Roth in the opening game of the Columbia Super Regional.
"We knew he'd put some guys on base, and we knew we'd put the ball in play," Golloway said. "We wanted to get guys on early. I didn't want to bunt and give up an out, I wanted to hit and run. If a guy got on with no outs, we wanted to put the ball on the ground. If it was one out, we wanted to try to drive the ball and possibly score."
Golloway thought it was a viable plan. He thought it was the right plan, because he was convinced the Sooners wouldn't be allowed to wait for pitches to drive. There just wouldn't be many. He had to put runners in motion to move the defense and create holes.
But as Roth lined up zero after zero on the scoreboard, Golloway knew he was fighting more than a great pitcher. He was fighting a moment. And maybe, in some ways, he was fighting fate. Roth, a ninth-round pick of the Angels, was pitching his last home game ever as a Gamecock. After 7 1/3 shutout innings, he jogged off to screams and applause and probably some tears, too.
"I just didn't start the runners early enough, and I should have forced our guys to be more aggressive," Golloway said. "But you know what, after what Michael has done for that program, it was poetic justice. We tried hard to beat him, but I became a big fan after that game."
Just as they did the past two seasons, the Gamecocks will again heap their championship dreams onto Roth and ask him to carry them. He'll flirt with the strike zone like only he can, nibbling around the corners, walking batters, scattering hits, making it all work.
It's a play-with-fire approach no coach would allow any other pitcher to get away with, not even Roth's own coach, Ray Tanner.
But that's just it, isn't it? No coach would expect another one quite like Michael Roth, either.
Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN Insider. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) CC and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he graduated with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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