Michael Roth’s amazing baseball journey took an unexpected stop last weekend in Anaheim, Calif.
There he found himself on the mound of Angel Stadium to start the eighth inning of a game against the Houston Astros. The left-handed pitcher then proceeded to do what he had done so many times in his collegiate career in South Carolina. He faced six hitters, and he got six outs, four of them by strikeout.
When Los Angeles superstar Albert Pujols drilled a game-winning two-run double in the bottom of the ninth inning, he made a winner out of Roth, 23, in the most improbable of MLB debuts.
For a 2012 ninth-round draft pick who had pitched 27 innings in the minor leagues — 22 last year for the Orem Owlz, a rookie-league affiliate in Utah, and five this season with Double-A Arkansas — Roth made a rapid rise as improbable as the one where he progressed from a backup first baseman and situational reliever as a freshman to the greatest pitcher in USC history by the time he left as a senior.
Roth, who helped lead the Gamecocks to a pair of national championships, hesitates to say that he’s living a charmed life, but he’s well aware of the unusual circumstances of his arrival in the majors, especially considering so many players spend years in the minor leagues without making it.
“The only way for me to describe it is that it’s crazy. In no way did I think I would be called up to the big leagues this early. Not that I didn’t think I was good enough or that I don’t deserve to be here, but this is my first full year, and to be called up already is incredible,” Roth said Thursday upon returning to Anaheim from a road series in Minnesota.
“I’ve been very blessed over the past three years, really my entire life. I’ve been given these opportunities to play baseball, and I’ve made the most of them. That’s what I’m trying to do here — just make the most of this opportunity.”
His story book first appearance seemed fitting for a pitcher who reveled in big games at the College World Series, where he posted a 4-0 mark in a record eight starts and two relief appearances in three trips to Omaha. USC coach Chad Holbrook believes Roth’s quick promotion was based not just on talent but on the way he relished the spotlight.
“That’s what he does, and obviously, that’s what he did,” Holbrook said. “They felt so good about his maturity and his ability to throw strikes and not be fazed by the moment. That’s Michael Roth.”
The Greer native also believes his time in a USC uniform — when he went 26-6 with a 1.91 ERA in the previous four seasons — played a part in his readiness to meet this challenge.
“I definitely think my college career prepared me for some of the things I’m going through now, playing in front of big crowds in high-pressure situations,” he said. “That has prepared me for what I’m going to face in the coming days, and hopefully weeks, months and years.”
Roth said the Angels told him nothing about their reasoning behind his promotion. Pitching coach Mike Butcher explained that he would come out of the bullpen. He has no idea whether he’ll be back in Double-A Arkansas at some point soon or he’ll remain in the big leagues if he continues to get major league hitters out.
“Basically, your job is on the line every day, whether I’m in the minor leagues or here,” Roth said. “That’s the nature of the business, and I’m OK with that. I actually enjoy that. It’s a part of the competition that I love.”
He wasn’t overwhelmed by walking into a major league clubhouse for the first time and finding greats such as Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout there. He was more concerned about learning the names of his new teammates and coaches and figuring out the protocol for a rookie reliever. But he understood the larger implications.
“I was realizing a dream of mine that I’ve had since I first picked up a baseball,” he said.
After arriving last Saturday morning, he was greeted with a WWE championship belt to carry and a sparkly backpack to fill with snacks for his fellow relievers in the bullpen — a job that goes to the reliever with the least amount of MLB service time. But he also got in the proper frame of mind to pitch right away.
“I knew I had to be ready,” he said. “And I knew when I was warming up that I was going to go in the next inning so I had ample time to get ready. From the point I stepped on the mound and started throwing the first pitch, it just felt like where I should be.”
Getting those six outs impressed manager Mike Scioscia.
“It’s a good feeling to see a youngster take the ball for the first time and get out there. His makeup is off the charts. He got out there, competed and earned his first win,” Scioscia told MLB.com after the game. He also added there’s a role that Roth “can carve out for himself” if he pitches well.
His second stint came Monday against the Twins, and he went two innings again, this time in a loss. He allowed one run on one hit, a Joe Mauer RBI single, and one walk with two strikeouts.
Roth says the best part of making it to the major leagues is not having his bags carried for him or eating the lobster macaroni and cheese in the clubhouse spread.
“The coolest part is to being able to go and play against the best people in the world in professional baseball,” he said. “To be considered one of the best players and play at an elite level like this is the best part.”
His unlikely promotion was greeted with joy by family, friends, former teammates and USC fans. One of the most popular Gamecocks for both his success and outgoing personality, he appreciated the outpouring of support. Holbrook said watching Roth pitch — and pick up the win in such an exciting fashion — while USC was coming back to Columbia after a sweep at Florida was a much-needed highlight.
“Our players were excited watching that on the bus on the way home. It’s really neat for our team and our program. I’m sure it’s awful special for Michael,” Holbrook said.
Roth’s promotion came not long after former USC teammate Jackie Bradley made the major league roster as an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox to start this season.
The pair played huge roles in the Gamecocks’ national titles in 2010 and 2011.
“Sometimes we were discounted as not being the most talented team, but it shows hard work and dedication to the craft pays off,” Roth said. “It shows people that we did have a special team. It speaks to how the success we had is translating to professional baseball.”
Roth said he realizes his story sounds like a movie script. Now he wants to write a happy ending for it.
“Hopefully, it’s the start of a long professional career,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible. It’s been a lot of fun, and my time up here is not over yet. I hope it doesn’t end for a while.”