CLEMSON — As a Norwich, Conn., native, Dominic Leone had to navigate his way around the Clemson-South Carolina baseball rivalry when he signed with the Tigers three years ago.
Leone did his research, but it didn’t really sink in for the Clemson pitcher until he watched the Clemson-South Carolina football game on television as a freshman.
“I was blown away,” Leone said. “I said, ‘OK, this is the real deal. When baseball came around, it was a whole new atmosphere. Something I’ve never been in before. I marveled in that moment.”
Two years later, Leone, now a junior right-hander, says he has matured and grown into “being able to handle the excitement and emotion” of the rivalry.
But there is no question that Clemson-South Carolina baseball has itself matured into one of the nation’s most unique and intense rivalries. The teams begin their annual three-game series with tonight’s 6 p.m. game between the No. 3 Gamecocks (6-0) and No. 15 Clemson (4-2) at Charleston’s Joseph Riley Park, with the traveling circus moving north for Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at Columbia’s Carolina Stadium and Sunday’s 2 p.m. series finale at Clemson’s Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
The Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State rivalries are both three-game series with neutral sites (Georgia-Tech plays its neutral game at Turner Field, while Florida-FSU visits Jacksonville’s Baseball Grounds), but no one uses the Clemson-USC format: three days, three cities, three games. The aforementioned rivalries spread their series over three midweek dates, stripping them of the intensity that the Gamecocks and Tigers enjoy.
“It’s a weekend series and a three-game series,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “It probably gives it a little more focus. Everyone can do their thing for this weekend and then get on with our business in both of our conferences, work hard through the rest of the season, put ourselves in good position for the end. It’s a good weekend for us, we’re looking forward to it, we’re excited about it.”
Last year cranked the rivalry to a new level. In the teams’ Clemson matchup, Leggett challenged the bat used by Gamecock star center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., intimating that USC had warmed its aluminum bats to gain an edge.
After USC clinched the series with a hard-fought 5-4 win at Greenville’s Fluor Field, coach Ray Tanner uncorked an angry rant, calling Leggett’s antics “shenanigans.”
Both coaches smoothed over their differences a day later in a phone call. This week, Leggett said “last year is last year” and called the matter “water under the bridge.”
“I hope everyone goes to Charleston, has a good time with it, treats everyone with respect and we play a good hard game on both sides,” he said. “The same thing in Columbia, the same thing here. If so, it’s a neat rivalry when it’s kept in that perspective.”
“Last year it went awry a little bit certainly, but as far as I’m concerned, and him as well I think, we discussed it after it was over, we put it aside and we moved on,” he said. “It’s back to baseball. I don’t expect anything but good, competitive baseball.”
Tonight, the series kicks off with an excellent pitching matchup. South Carolina will send senior lefty Michael Roth (1-0, 0.69 ERA) to the mound, while Clemson will counter with junior righty Kevin Brady (0-0, 0.90 ERA). Roth has looked strong in two starts, throwing seven no-hit innings last week against Elon, while Brady has also been sharp. He appears fully healthy after missing two-plus months last season with a forearm strain suffered against the Gamecocks.
Saturday, Clemson will start Leone (2-0, 3.27 ERA) against USC junior righty Matt Price (1-0, 1.80 ERA). Sunday, the Gamecocks will start junior righty Colby Holmes (2-0, 0.00 ERA), while Clemson’s starter remains undetermined.
Senior David Haselden made the first two starts in that slot, compiling a 3.86 ERA in seven total innings. Leggett said Haselden remains a candidate, but sophomore Kevin Pohle (2-0, 0.00 ERA in 7 IP) and junior Jonathan Meyer (0-1, 21.60 ERA in 1.2 IP) are also options.
Clemson preseason All-American third baseman Richie Shaffer’s status remains uncertain; he suffered a strained groin running out a single in Sunday’s 9-6 win over Maine.
“Right now, he’s still questionable,” Leggett said Thursday morning. “We’re hopeful he might have a chance to play some this weekend, but we’ll play it day by day. See how it progresses.”
If Shaffer can’t go, he’ll be replaced by freshman Jay Baum, who has one hit in his first 10 collegiate at-bats.
“He played really good second base that first weekend for us,” Leggett said of Baum. “He’s going to be a good player for us. He’s got a little calmness about him, some confidence about him. He’s a good hitter who plays good defense.”
Leggett’s team is still seeking consistency in its lineup, particularly in the corner outfield spots. However, he likes the “spit and vinegar” it showed in a pair of weekend comeback wins over Maine.
The key? Finding a way to score against the Gamecocks’ excellent staff.
“We’ve got to solve their pitching, score some runs,” he said.
Tanner said his young players’ first exposure to the rivalry will be “interesting.”
“They know about it, have heard about it. Many have witnessed it, but they haven’t been involved in it yet,” He said. “So we’ll probably have a few more youngsters in the game than they will, although they have some new players as well.”