The last time No. 7 South Carolina and Clemson hooked up on the diamond, the season hung in the balance on every pitch.
It was June 2012, and the two rivals squared off in an unprecedented NCAA regional showdown in Columbia, with the Gamecocks winning twice to advance to the super regionals and eventually the College World Series finals.
The two sides meet again this weekend under much different circumstances: It’s early March, and with no spring training and only seven games played by each side in 2013, the stakes change.
"It’s the process," said Clemson pitcher Daniel Gossett, who will get the start in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. series opener at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. "Even in scrimmages, we’re trying to pitch right now how I’m going to pitch midseason, in Omaha.
"If we can stick to that process, I think we’re going to be OK and not worry about, ‘OK, we’re playing Carolina. We’ve got to play better now. OK, the elements are different, we’ve got to play better now.’ It’s just play the best we can at all times."
That doesn’t mean the rivalry won’t be just as strong when the two sides meet up in Clemson Friday, Greenville on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. (televised on WMYA-40) and Columbia on Sunday at 3 p.m. After all, winning this series can build momentum for the conference season and so much more.
"We want to win these games obviously because they help you get to that point and because it’s a big rival and because we both want to kick each other’s rear end," said Jack Leggett, who is 34-38 against USC as Clemson’s coach. "That’s what this rivalry is all about. We’ll be playing hard and doing everything we can to win these ballgames. I’m sure they’ll be doing the same thing."
Since the rivalry became a three-game weekend affair in 2010, as opposed to the old format where the teams played four games broken up over several weeks, the Gamecocks have won nine of the last 13 meetings against Clemson. That includes the postseason contests from last year and a pair of wins in the 2010 CWS that also ended Clemson’s season.
"When you get two really good teams and programs, someone is going to lose and we have been fortunate to be on the good side of things the last couple of years, but it is not because we have been that much better," first-year USC coach Chad Holbrook said. "It is because they have been close, the games have been in the balance, and we have made a critical play here or there, a critical pitch here or there to win a game."
Five of the last six games in the series have been decided by one run, and this weekend could certainly offer the same drama.
Leggett said USC and Clemson share similar characteristics: Both rely on good pitching and solid defense.
"I think we’re similar teams as we stand right now," Leggett said. "Hopefully both of us, our teams will mature and get better as the season goes along."
The format adds even more intrigue to the series. This marks the third time in four years that the two sides have played the sandwich game in Greenville; last year a game was played in Charleston. While Leggett admits there are some logistic and travel issues with the current format, there isn’t another way for the two teams to play a meaningful series based on their current conference schedules; and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
That’s fine with the players, who understand they won’t be in midseason form.
"I think it’s about the right time because it gets us a competitive taste playing a good Division I team before going into conference play," Clemson outfielder Thomas Brittle said. "I think this is the best baseball rivalry in college baseball. We expect a great series again. They’ve got a great program and it’s always been a little bit of a heated rivalry."
Plenty of other storylines abound for the 5-2 Tigers and the 6-1 Gamecocks:
This is the first big series in the head coaching career of Holbrook, who took over for Ray Tanner in the offseason, but Leggett doesn’t expect there to be any drop off with how the Gamecocks are managed.
USC shortstop Joey Pankake is dealing with a hip injury that sidelined him in Tuesday’s win over Furman; Holbrook isn’t ruling him out for the weekend and could place him at designated hitter.
Gossett (1-0, 0.77 ERA), who had a big coming-out party as a freshman in last year’s NCAA tournament loss in Columbia, is a South Carolina native who grew up playing with several Gamecocks. And he’ll match up tonight with another dynamic sophomore and Palmetto State native in Jordan Montgomery (2-0, 1.64).
The other pitching matchups are also set: USC senior Colby Holmes (1-0, 1.46) will toe the rubber against Clemson freshman Clate Schmidt (1-0, 0.00) at Fluor Field. A pair of seniors, Clemson’s Scott Firth (2-0, 0.60) and USC’s Nolan Belcher (1-1, 3.86), finish off the series at Carolina Stadium.
Brittle said the Tigers talked during the offseason about how their 2012 season ended in Columbia, and they are excited they don’t have to wait long for a chance at "revenge."
"I think this series showcases college baseball from the emotions to how important the series is to the way the games are played," Holbrook said. "You have two terrific programs playing each other in the same state. Three stadiums will all be sold out. It is a great showcase for college baseball, and it is a lot of fun to be a part of this rivalry."