COLUMBIA — Just one big hit. That’s all they needed.
Just one big blast, and the floodgates would open, spreading hot hitting throughout the lineup. Or so Clemson’s struggling hitters told reporters all week.
Phil Pohl provided the spark, and his teammates blasted their way out of an offensive funk in the NCAA Tournament opener.
Pohl’s second-inning grand slam set the stage for Clemson’s 11-3 rout of Coastal Carolina in Friday’s Columbia regional opener at Carolina Stadium.
The Tigers pounded out 13 hits and hit double digits in runs for the first time since May 6, and ninth time this season. No.2 seed Clemson improved to 34-26 and will face top-seeded South Carolina - a 7-0 winner over Manhattan - in Saturday’s 4 p.m. winner’s bracket game; Coastal fell to 41-18 and faces an elimination game at noon today.
It will be the rivals' first meeting in an NCAA game outside the College World Series since 1980. USC bounced Clemson from the CWS with a pair of wins in both 2002 and 2010.
“We knew we could score some runs,” said right fielder Brad Felder, “but it was good to actually come out and prove we could do it and have some momentum going into the game tomorrow.”
Pohl, a senior/DH catcher and co-captain, has been somewhat overlooked despite entering Friday with a team-leading 50 RBI; he hits fifth behind junior third baseman Richie Shaffer, who is projected as a top-20 overall pick in Monday’s MLB amateur draft.
“He wasn’t high on the list of guys we thought would be a difference-maker,” Coastal coach Gary Gilmore said.
Pitch carefully to Shaffer, who has a team-leading 59 walks, to get to Pohl? That’s fine with him.
“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Pohl said. “It’s been happening all year. Most teams try to pitch around Richie with his ability as a hitter. To be able to step up and get a hit, that gives me confidence.”
Pohl finished with two hits and five RBI, tying his career high.
“Phil is a battler,” Leggett said. “He’s tough physically and mentally, one of those guys you don’t mind seeing come up to the plate at all. You’re going to get his best effort every time. If you’re going down, you’ll go down with one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. If you get something good to happen, it couldn’t happen to a better kid.”
Save a 9-7 ACC Tournament win over then-No.1 Florida State, the Tigers hadn’t scored more than two runs in any of their last six games, losing five of six.
Clemson capitalized on a Coastal fielding blunder for an early lead.
With two out, Shaffer lofted a pop to short right field; it landed safely in the Bermuda Triangle between a trio of Chant fielders.
It was ruled a double, but Pohl cashed in the mistake, lining a single to left and scoring Shaffer with the game’s first run.
Another fielding mistake proved far more costly.
A one-out single by Felder and a Jason Stolz walk, followed by a Steve Wilkerson strikeout, brought center fielder Thomas Brittle to the plate with two out.
He chopped what should’ve been an inning-ending grounder to first base, but Coastal starter Austin Wallace was slow to cover, and the speedy Brittle beat him to the bag.
Wallace pitched around Shaffer, walking him and loading the bases for Pohl.
He worked a 3-0 count, and unloaded on a 3-1 fastball, lining it just over the wall in left for a grand slam and stunning 6-0 lead.
“As soon as he hit it,” Wallace said, “I knew it was trouble.”
Umpires initially ruled it a double, but as Pohl pulled into second, third base umpire Jason Stidham raised his hand and twirled it, signaling a home run.
Clemson’s dugout poured onto the field in jubilation. It was Pohl’s second career grand slam, both at Carolina Stadium; in four career games here, he has three homers and 13 RBI.
Wallace lasted just two innings, giving up six runs, all earned.
“It loosened us up,” Leggett said of the hit. “It puts some pressure on their dugout and gives us some confidence.”
Coastal wasn’t charged with an error in either inning, but the plays were still maddening to Gilmore.
“It should have been 0-0 after two or us up one,” he said. “Give Clemson credit. You don’t make a play, they punish you. That’s the difference between Big South teams and ACC or SEC teams. You open the door, they slam it shut every time we play them.”
Clemson was clutch Friday. 10 of its 13 hits and nine of its 11 runs came with two outs.
“Two-out hits are a backbreaker if the other team does it,” Leggett said. “Offensively if you get them it’s a real positive thing and the kids feel good about themselves. The momentum is contagious.”