Jordan Montgomery never flinches.
Put the South Carolina left-hander on the mound in the biggest situations, and he delivers a big performance.
Last season, facing elimination in the NCAA Super Regional in Chapel Hill against top-ranked North Carolina, Montgomery was dazzling as he tossed his first complete game, a four-hit shutout victory. It was reminiscent of the eight shutout innings he threw against Arkansas to stave off elimination in the 2012 College World Series.
“He’s a cool customer,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “He’s a guy that you want on the mound in a big game.”
Montgomery is no longer the lanky, baby-faced freshman who was handed the nickname of “Gumby” the moment he walked through the Carolina Stadium doors. With three-day-old scruff on his face, the 6-foot-4 Montgomery sports a much bigger, stronger build these days, the result of a lot of weight-room work.
And he has emerged as USC’s go-to man on the mound entering fall practice in preparation for the 2014 season.
“Jordan is a bona-fide Friday night guy. He has the potential to be an All-SEC and All-American player,” Holbrook said. “He has pitched in some big games here, both last year and as a freshman. He knows what it’s all about. Knowing you have Jordan Montgomery on the front end of your rotation is, certainly, comforting for us.”
He’s ready to embrace the challenge that comes with being the staff ace.
“Every game is important, but definitely Friday night going against their best pitchers is an important role,” he said. “If I can fulfill it, I’m going to do my best. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ve worked hard and it has paid off. We’ll see what else happens.”
He also knows that — along with junior standouts Grayson Greiner, Tanner English and Joey Pankake — he must assume a leadership role as one of the veterans in a program that has reached the NCAA tournament 14 consecutive seasons, a stretch that includes national titles in 2010 and 2011.
“With the loss of (Tyler) Webb and Nolan (Belcher) and all the others, the returning guys, myself included, are going to have to step up and fill those roles,” he said. “I’m just trying to get us back to Omaha.”
He sports a fastball that can touch 90 miles per hour. He can keep hitters off-balance with a masterful changeup. He also can mix in a cutter and a curve, but his best quality remains his control and the ability to consistently hit his target.
Montgomery went 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA as a freshman, and last season, when he missed a month with a stress reaction in his pitching arm, he went 6-1 again but with a sparkling 1.48 ERA. In his career, he has walked 28 batters in 1532/3 innings. USC pitching coach Jerry Meyers credits Montgomery’s mound presence as much as his stuff for the success.
“He’s got intangibles, he’s got makeup,” Meyers said. “He’s the same in all games. That demeanor is a positive. He’s competitive in all settings and he wants to win. He has strong character. He does things the right way. He works extremely hard. He’s exactly the kind of guy that you want leading your staff.”
Montgomery’s poise earned him NCAA All-Regional tournament honors in both of his seasons, as he beat Clemson in 2012 and Liberty in 2013 with strong performances. Stoic and quiet, he’s as efficient with words in an interview as he is with his pitches on the mound.
But Meyers says Montgomery loosens up around teammates, and the pitcher smiles at the notion that he might be serious off the mound, too.
“That’s how I am when I’m pitching,” Montgomery said. “I’m sometimes like that around people, but once I warm up to them, I can be kind of funny, I guess.”
After a standout career at Sumter High and in American Legion ball, he wasn’t drafted out of high school. But his adjustment to pitching in the SEC for one of the nation’s top programs can only increase his visibility among professional scouts as he enters his draft-eligible season.
He understands that he might go in the MLB draft next summer, but he’s trying to set those thoughts aside.
“I’ve put myself in a pretty good position, but I’m more worried about winning games right now. When it happens, I’ll think about it,” he said.
Winning games for USC means the Gamecocks have a good shot to return to the College World Series for the fourth time in five seasons. There’s nothing he wants more than the opportunity to pitch in the biggest games in the postseason.
“We’ve got the talent. We’ve got to get back to the tradition and lean on that,” Montgomery said. “When you’ve got a good program, you should have expectations of making it to the championship.”