Down on the Farm: Journey from College World Series hero to Giants Triple-A


Down on the Farm: Journey from College World Series hero to Giants Triple-A

Some Twitter bios are better than others. 

Baseball is something I do, not who I am. 

"Our jobs can't define us as who we are," Michael Roth says from the Raley Field clubhouse before a Sacramento River Cats win. "For me, that's really just what it means. My identity is not my sport. 

"That doesn't mean that if I go out there and I get shelled, that I don't get upset, but it just means that I'm not going to take that home with me. That's the biggest thing and that's what it means to me. Baseball is not my identity, I'm not going to wrap my life in it. While I love it and enjoy it, I'm just not gonna hinge on every game as to whether I'm a failure or success." 

Every June, college baseball's elite come to Omaha, Neb. aiming to do what Roth accomplished at the College World Series. As a team, that would be winning the national championship — twice in Roth's case. As a player, that would be turning into a superstar. 

Long before he earned a single cent for playing the game, Roth was signing autographs for more than just fans of his South Carolina Gamecocks on his way into the record books. 

"You’re pretty much famous while you’re there," Roth said. "The College World Series is about as big league as it gets when you’re not in the big leagues. Playing in front of 25,000 people, the fans are really good fans, they’re really into the game no matter if it’s your fans traveling or just the people in Omaha." 

Roth's College World Series career ended with three straight trips from his sophomore season to his senior season (2010-12) and was crowned a champion twice with legendary numbers. They are as follows: 10 appearances (third most ever), eight starts (record), three starts in a championship game (record), four wins (second most ever), 60.1 innings pitched (record), and a 1.49 ERA (fourth best ever with minimum 30 innings pitched). 

Roth's collision course to domination was not an excepted one, especially on the mound. In fact, he wasn't even recruited to South Carolina as a pitcher. 

"I was recruited to South Carolina as a first baseman and didn’t really perform well enough in fall to even merit much contention so I really pitched out of necessity my freshman year," Roth said. 

The lefty still managed to hit in 13 games as a freshman, batting just .154. On the mound, he turned out a solid 4.22 ERA with a 1-1 record after pitching in 16 games and starting two.  

That next season in 2010, the legend began. 

When he came back to campus as a sophomore, Roth was still plenty focused on trying to be an everyday first baseman. One day while turning double plays at first, then pitching coach Mark Calvi saw a way to make Roth into a force on the hill.

"He saw me and said, ‘Have you ever thought about dropping down?’ I’m like ‘Hell no, what are you thinking?’ He made me do it right then and there, go throw sidearm in the bullpen," Roth said. 

That lefty sidearm slot saw Roth, who is far from a flamethrower, sling unhittable pitches to the tune of an ERA just above one. He was the ultimate lefty specialist until South Carolina needed him the most for much more than a quick outing out of the ‘pen.

With South Carolina facing elimination against rival Clemson in the College World Series, the starting rotation was out of arms. Before he knew it, coach Calvi came up to his All-American reliever and named Roth the day's starting pitcher for the first time that season with one simple message: "Hey, just go out there and pitch." 

The plan was for Roth to go a couple innings so South Carolina could use a bullpen by committee approach. Next thing you know, Roth is through three innings. The plan seems perfect. Then five innings. Okay, this is a lot better than any plan. He's dealing, keep him in. Roth not only perfected the plan, he was more than perfect, better than any expectations that were placed upon him. He saved the season with a complete game, allowing only three hits in a 5-1 win. 

South Carolina went on to beat UCLA in the championship, starting its run of three straight appearances in the finals, winning again in 2011 before losing in 2012.

Now at 27 years old and pitching with the Sacramento River Cats as part of the San Francisco Giants' Triple-A team, Roth knows the questions are coming around this time of year. His left arm earned its legend as an amateur and instead of run from the past, his eyes are set on the present while appreciating how he came to this point. 

"I guess in a sense my career did take off in the College World Series because if it weren’t for that, I’m not sure if I’d even be here as a starting pitcher or as a pitcher in general," Roth says. "It’s kind of interesting how life’s events take you with things like that in big moments.” 

Less than a year after being selected by the Angels in the ninth round of the 2012 draft, Roth made his MLB debut against the Astros, pitching two perfect innings while striking out four straight at one point. The dream was made, but he also learned the realities of pro baseball compared to college. 

"As far as from a career perspective, college baseball really teaches you how to go out there and compete and go out there and win," Roth explains. "Pro baseball is much more individualized. 

"It still sucks if you come to the park every day and get your ass kicked. But it’s just more individual in its nature, it’s more of a business." 

After the 2014 season, the Angels released Roth. He has made it to the bigs with two teams — the Angels and Rangers — but the Giants signing him in November 2016 made them Roth's fourth organization since 2012. 

The Giants were particularly intriguing to Roth in the offseason as they weren't set on him being a starter or reliever, creating flexibility and hopefully another path to the majors. Roth has pitched in 13 games this year for Sacramento, starting nine, and holds a 4-4 record with a 4.12 ERA in the highly hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. 

The journey has been stardom in college with peaks and valleys as a pro. For Roth though, it still comes down to that message coach Calvi said to him as he started his status among the College World Series greats — make pitches, throw strikes, get outs. 

"Whether you throw mid to upper 90s or 88 to 92 like I throw, I think it's really just attacking the zone," he says. "That's something I focus on every time out there. It's going right at them and not trying to be too fine and make a perfect pitch. A good pitch is good enough, I don't need to make a perfect pitch."

The stats will always be there. The memories too. Records are meant to be broken, but plenty of his might as well be etched in stone. The game, the numbers have been how others see him yet it's not all who Michael Roth is — just like he showed by spending three months in Spain after winning the 2011 national championship — no matter how many South Carolina fans sit around bars talking about what his left arm did in Omaha, no matter when he's back in the big leagues and no matter how long he toes the rubber.

Baseball is something I do, not who I am. 

Jeff Samardzija to miss start of season after MRI reveals strained pectoral muscle


Jeff Samardzija to miss start of season after MRI reveals strained pectoral muscle

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants nearly left Scottsdale unscathed. Instead they'll leave with an injured No. 3 starter, but the news on Jeff Samardzija late Thursday night was good news. 

Manager Bruce Bochy told reporters that Samardzija has a strained pectoral muscle that will sideline him for the start of the season. But given that Samardzija, who has had a rough spring, went for an MRI on his shoulder a week before the season opener, team officials have to be breathing a sigh of relief. 

"He'll go a week without throwing the ball and then crank it back up," Bochy told reporters, including Kerry Crowley of the San Jose Mercury News. "It should't take long to get him back on the mound so it's good news."

Samardzija was supposed to take the ball next Saturday at Dodger Stadium. Instead, the Giants will rely on two young pitchers and a non-roster invitee at the back end of their rotation. The injury ends a three-way race for the final two spots between Chris Stratton, Ty Blach and Derek Holland. The Giants could use all three in the rotation until Samardzija is healthy, or they could skip their No. 5 starter and move one of the pitchers into the bullpen. 

Because the Giants have two off days before their seventh game, Madison Bumgarner can line up to pitch three of the first nine games. The Giants have been considering that all spring, although they have yet to publicly announce a decision one way or the other. Bumgarner said early in camp that he would be up to the challenge, and given how sharp he was all spring, that might be the best way to tread water until Samardzija is cleared to return to the rotation.

No. 79? No. 53? Before they were stars, Giants wore random numbers


No. 79? No. 53? Before they were stars, Giants wore random numbers

SCOTTSDALE — A couple of veterans walked past a clubhouse TV earlier in camp and saw that the Giants and Padres were tied heading into the bottom of the 10th of an exhibition game. The Padres infielders were just standing around, and there was not yet a new pitcher on the mound. 

“It’s that time when No. 99 comes in to pitch,” one of the players joked as he headed home for the day.

A few seconds later, a big left-hander took the mound. He was, in fact, wearing No. 99, and in his inning on the mound he would face a No. 74 (Aramis Garcia) and No. 78 (Steven Duggar). This is the norm for spring training, when dozens of players — including teenagers and journeymen still hanging around the low minors — get into every game. That leads to action between numbers you would never see in a normal game. The Giants had 60 players in camp, plus 10 coaches and staff members with numbers. Throw in their 10 retired numbers and the unofficially retired ones (25, 55, etc.) and, well, there aren’t a whole lot of choices left. 

If Duggar makes the Opening Day roster, he’ll get an upgrade from his lineman’s number. Ditto for Garcia, who could be Buster Posey’s backup as soon as next season. Still, a taste of big league action doesn’t guarantee a normal number in camp, when young players regularly find themselves back at the end of the line. 

Ryder Jones wore 83 in camp last year and 63 in the big leagues. When he showed up this year, with 150 big league at-bats under his belt, he was told that he would have to wait until the end of the spring to upgrade. Players with more service time (think No. 2 Chase d’Arnaud or No. 19 Josh Rutledge) get priority, at least until all the cuts are made. Jones said he has a few numbers in mind for his next stint in the big leagues, but he won’t be picky. 

“Anything under 40 works,” he said, smiling. 

The steady climb toward single digits happens to just about everybody. Long before Brandon Crawford’s became @bcraw35, he wore 79 in his first camp. He moved up to 53 after that and Mike Murphy flipped that to 35 when Crawford became the big league shortstop. Hunter Pence doesn’t remember his first spring training number with the Astros, but he knows it was in the low eighties. Joe Panik wore 66 the first time he spent a spring at Scottsdale Stadium. “I was an offensive lineman,” he joked. Tyler Beede, now on the cusp of his big league debut, got promoted from 63 to 32 when he arrived last spring, only to swap to 38 this year because of some in-season shifting. When Pablo Sandoval arrived last summer, Steven Okert switched from 48 to 32.

Then there are those who have only known one jersey. Posey was a can’t-miss prospect when he arrived and doesn’t remember wearing anything other than 28. Brandon Belt was a top-25 prospect when he came to camp for the first time, and he’s been 9 since that day. Madison Bumgarner wore 40 in his first big league camp because he had already made his big league debut, but somewhere in the team archives, there are probably a few photos of a 19-year-old Bumgarner wearing something else. 

“The previous spring I came up to pitch a few times,” Bumgarner said. “I’m pretty sure I had a different number every time I came over and I’m pretty sure it was always in the eighties.”

There were seven Giants in the eighties this spring. Duggar was one of two top prospects — Chris Shaw inherited Crawford’s old 79 — to come close, and he didn’t mind one bit. He’s not thinking too far ahead, even though he could be a big leaguer in eight days. 

“I’ll take anything if I’m in the big leagues,” he said. “I’ll take No. 112 if that’s what they give me.”