CLEMSON — In Jack Leggett’s 18 seasons as Clemson head coach, Doug Kingsmore Stadium has become something of a Hotel California for visiting teams, particularly in the NCAA Tournament.
They can check out any time they like, but they can never leave. Not happily, at least.
This weekend marked the 11th NCAA regional Clemson has hosted in Leggett’s tenure, with four Super Regionals to boot.
The Tigers were 12-2 in that span, losing only the 1994 and 1998 regionals and winning all four Super Regionals. They’d won five straight NCAA elimination games here.
As UConn pulled its bus out of the left-field parking lot Monday night, it took with it more than an NCAA regional title. It took the Tigers’ invincibility.
The Huskies were superior in all phases of the game, taking control early and crushing the top-seeded Tigers in a 14-1 rout, their worst NCAA loss since a 15-0 defeat at Auburn in 2003.
Clemson’s season ended at 43-20; UConn improved to 45-18-1 and will face No.4 national seed South Carolina in this weekend’s Super Regional in Columbia.
“We just got beat in every phase of the game tonight,” Leggett said. “They swung bats well off our pitching, we couldn’t seem to muster up much offense and were a little slower than they were every phase of the game.”
The Huskies outhit Clemson 17-6 and spoiled what would have been one of the most hotly anticipated Super Regionals in years between Clemson and USC, leaving only bitter disappointment in their wake. It is just the second time since 2004 that the Tigers missed a Super Regional.
“It makes it that much worse,” sophomore first baseman Richie Shaffer said. “You don’t want anyone to come on your field and beat you. This is our field, our place, we’re protective of it. They came into a hostile environment and did the job.”
Sunday night, UConn built confidence with a 7-6 comeback win, and it carried over Monday. Meanwhile, the Tigers looked like zombies, committing three errors (two by ACC Player of the Year Brad Miller) and consistently failed to hit with runners in scoring position.
What’s more, their pitching depth, depleted when a line drive off starter Jonathan Meyer’s knee in the ACC Tournament knocked him out this week, scraped the bottom of the barrel.
“We knew were running low on pitching,” Leggett said. “We were going to be mix-and-match all night long.”
Freshman Kevin Pohle entered with a 5-1 record and 1.11 ERA, but his only starts were mid-week affairs against East Tennessee State and Davidson, where he allowed no runs in a combined 10 innings, scattering nine hits.
His career’s biggest start quickly went off the rails. Leadoff man L.J. Mazzilli singled to center, and right fielder John Andreoli followed with a bunt that died near the plate; he was safe at first.
Center fielder George Springer was next, rapping a single up the middle that gave the Huskies a quick 1-0 lead.
After Mike Nemeth grounded harmlessly to first base for the first out, third baseman Ryan Fuller lofted a fly to right. Chris Epps stumbled a bit, and the ball dropped in front of him for a single, scoring Andreoli.
Next came shortstop Nick Ahmed, who put a grounder in one of the only spots where shortstop Brad Miller couldn’t make a play, and Springer scored for a 3-0 lead.
Doug Kingsmore was silent, and that ended Pohle’s night in favor of senior Alex Frederick.
Frederick stopped the bleeding by picking Fuller off second and getting catcher Doug Elliot to fly to left, but the Huskies had Clemson in an immediate hole.
His appearance helped change momentum, albeit briefly.
Shaffer’s solo homer to left energized the crowd and cut the lead to two runs.
But Miller ended the third by lining into a double play, and double-play partner Jason Stolz ended the fourth by striking out with runners at first and second.
Frederick had quieted UConn’s bats with three scoreless innings, but his magic faded the second time through the Huskies’ order.
Leadoff hitter Billy Ferriter tripled over Epps’ head in right, and Mazzilli’s single scored him easily.
After Andreoli bunted him to second, Springer – who had just been selected 11th overall by the Houston Astros – hit a hot shot that went through Miller’s legs at short.
Nemeth’s RBI single to right extended the Huskies’ lead to four runs, ending Frederick’s night.
In came David Haselden, very effective in middle relief this season.
Not on this night.
Fuller greeted him with an RBI double, and Miller couldn’t handle an Ahmed chopper for his second error of the inning. After a Elliot pop-out, DH Tim Martin singled to right, ending Haselden’s night and giving the Huskies a stunning 8-1 lead.
UConn finished the job in the eighth with six runs, capped by Fuller’s monster 3-run homer to the scoreboard in left-center.
“We gave up six, five and three,” Leggett said. “Other than that we were OK.”
As the ninth began, Leggett gave seniors Epps and Schaus curtain calls, pulling them for defensive replacements so fans could give them a final goodbye.
It was a bittersweet moment for a team that finished the season 29-8, as hot as anyone in America.
“The ball got rolling in the wrong direction,” Leggett said. “And we couldn’t put a stop to it.”