CLEMSON — The execution was just about perfect.
No. 3 South Carolina loaded the bases with two out in the ninth — down 3-1 — before a near capacity crowd at Doug Kingsmore Stadium Sunday night.
No. 11 Clemson’s sophomore right-hander Clate Schmidt had cruised to that point, retiring six of his first seven batters before Gamecocks catcher Grayson Greiner knocked a single up the middle. Down to his last strike, pinch-hitter Brison Celek kept South Carolina’s hopes alive with another single.
USC 5, Clemson 3
Gamecocks sweep the series
Then it happened, Gamecocks shortstop Marcus Mooney sent Schmidt’s first delivery up the middle to Clemson center fielder Tyler Slaton — one Gamecock scores and Greiner is barreling around third. Slaton winds up and fires a strike just off the plate — freshman catcher Chris Okey tags Greiner out.
But Okey drops the ball. Greiner’s safe — and the game is tied. Six pitches into the next at-bat, South Carolina center fielder Tanner English laced a double down the left field line for the decisive two runs in a 5-3 Gamecocks win.
“We just wanted to get a couple runners on. (Schmidt) was dominant,” USC coach Chad Holbrook said. “He had dominant stuff in the seventh. It was going to be a tall order to score runs against him. It was a tall order. He may have got a pitch up here or there and we got a good swing on it. It’s baseball. Today was our day.”
South Carolina (10-0) swept the three-game series, continuing a dominant run since 2010 where they’ve won 13-of-16.
Slaton, who took Clemson’s MVP honors going 7-for-14 at the plate in the series, summed up the Tigers’ mood succinctly.
“It’s pretty tough to swallow,” Slaton said. “I thought we played well all game. It just hurts.”
Holbrook said pulling more than a pair of wins out of the rivalry series was going to be tough, but he had just the team makeup to do so.
“Sweeps are very, very rare,” said Holbrook. “Our kids are resilient and they played hard. For the most part we played well. We made some mistakes today, but it’s a gritty bunch and I’ve got some older players that have been around the block around a time or two. That showed there. “
The Tigers struck first on a Steven Duggar RBI single up the middle, who extended his team-best hitting streak to 19 games.
For awhile, that was enough for T.L. Hanna product Jake Long, making his third career start in a Tiger uniform.
Long allowed a single hit one time through the Gamecock order.
An English RBI single tied things up in the fifth, but Long was able to do what Clemson starters in the first two games couldn’t — limit the damage. Two down and two on in the same inning, Long induced a fly-ball to left field to end the threat.
He saved his best Clemson start for the rivalry showdown, going 6 1/3 innings with five hits allowed and four strikeouts.
“Jake pitched really well for us,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “I’m proud of how he pitched. He did a great job for us.”
Tiger runs in the sixth and seventh frames gave them the 3-1 edge as late as one out left in the ninth.
“I really felt like we were in control the whole time until the last inning,” Leggett said. “I felt really good about where we were and how we were playing. We had a great crowd here and I feel like we’ve got more big things coming out of this team before it’s over.”
A call in the eighth joined a number of chances that will haunt he and his team when they think back to this one.
Slaton thought he had him
Two on and one out, senior second baseman Steve Wilkerson hit a line-drive down the first base line that appeared — in real-time and on replay — to hit the chalk past the bag. First base umpire David Brown didn’t see it that way — and the Tigers’ hall-of-fame coach had some words for him. Wilkerson struck out and South Carolina relief retired the next four batters.
“I wouldn’t have come over if I didn’t think it was fair,” Leggett said. “It was a big part of the ballgame and a big situation with men on base in a big game. Unfortunately it didn’t go our way.”
Clemson hit just 2-of-12 with runners in scoring position on the night overall.
Gamecocks freshman starter Wil Crowe was chased after 6 2/3 innings, taking the no-decision, while junior righty reliever Cody Mincey earned his second win of the season with two scoreless frames.
Going into the ninth, Clemson had edged USC 11-5 in hits, but the Gamecocks finished with 10. Greiner took MVP honors, with the game-tying run and a Friday grand-slam among his weekend highlights.
“We fought to the last out,” Holbrook said. “That’s a good characteristic to a baseball team because it doesn’t always go your way. I’m glad our guys kept battling and fighting — I’m proud of them.”