COLUMBIA — – Jack Leggett was focused on the little things, and with good reason.
Sitting in a Carolina Stadium media room Saturday evening, Clemson’s veteran head coach looked utterly drained.
Replaying and reliving the Tigers’ crushing 5-4, 12-inning NCAA Columbia regional loss to No.1 seed South Carolina, Leggett thought of a hooked arm here, a missed chance with runners on base there.
If one or two key moments bounce Clemson’s way, maybe the two-time defending national champs never extend the game to 12 innings, giving L.B. Dantzler the chance to line the game-winning single over Brad Felder’s head in right field.
Maybe Leggett’s team could rest, rather than fight through No.3 seed Coastal Carolina in a noon elimination game and then take on the Gamecocks – again – just to keep their NCAA run alive.
“It’s such a minute difference in a game like this,” Leggett said. “In this game or any games we play, we’ve got to figure out a way to make the little things go in our direction.”
Saturday marked Clemson’s fifth consecutive loss to South Carolina in NCAA play, dating back to the 2002 College World Series.
Three years ago, the Tigers came out of the loser’s bracket to win their own NCAA regional, following a 3-2 loss to Oklahoma State with three consecutive wins.
They also won elimination games over Auburn and Alabama to make the 2010 College World Series.
Leggett said he was “working on our players’ minds right after the game was over.”
As difficult as it might be, Saturday’s agony must be forgotten, and quickly.
“You put it behind you, flush it out of your system,” he said. “You go to the next one. You can’t dwell on it. It can’t leak into tomorrow. If it leaks into tomorrow, you’re in trouble.”
Clemson finds itself in that difficult position because of conspicuous missed chances.
In the second inning, South Carolina starter Michael Roth – a Clemson nemesis who’d yielded just five earned runs in 27.2 career innings against the Tigers – was in a serious jam.
Roth began the second by allowing a Phil Pohl single and a pair of walks to Jay Baum and Jon McGibbon, loading the bases for catcher Spencer Kieboom.
Kieboom grounded to short, and McGibbon came right at second baseman Chase Vergason, throwing his arm up. Vergason completed the double play and Pohl scored what appeared to be the game’s first run.
But second base umpire Garman ruled interference on McGibbon, meaning the play was a dead ball and automatic two outs; both remaining runners had to return to their bases. Felder flied out to end the inning.
“(McGibbon) slid in and made contact, hooked the infielder,” Garman told an Associated Press pool reporter. “So instead of just sliding in, it's a safety rule instead of just sliding, he's making contact to try and disrupt the play. So when you call interference, no runs can be made so everybody has to go back.”
When asked about the play, Leggett said he had to “be really careful what I say here.”
“In 62 games, we haven’t had one call like that all year,” he said. “It’s a tough time for that one to surface. Let the teams play, let us do our things. It was a heck of a ballgame, but I wasn’t feeling that one too good.”
Clemson also stranded a runner at second base in the third inning and couldn’t capitalize on an error and walk to open the fifth.
Roth was not sharp, allowing three runs (all earned) in 6.1 innings, walking one and striking out four, but Leggett felt his team missed chances against the crafty ace.
“We had Roth on the ropes and we couldn’t quite finish a couple innings,” he said. “That’s where the game lay.”
Relievers Scott Firth and Jonathan Meyer gave up runs in the eighth and ninth innings, erasing a 4-2 lead; only Thomas Brittle’s pinpoint throw to the plate cut down Vergason and forced extra innings.
Put an extra run or two on the board early, and none of that matters.
“It took a run away from the scoreboard, and we had to put it past us, try and put more runs on the board,” Brittle said. “Hopefully get something good going.”