Liberty’s battery sends Clemson’s season to the brink
COLUMBIA — The baseball team showing up with players’ and coaches’ heads shaved into Mohawks played the part — loose, relaxed, swinging for the fences free of fear.
The team that showed up with expectations to set up a Saturday night showdown with a chief rival played like all the pressure in the ballpark was piped into its dugout.
Sure enough, the Flames cranked the heat on Clemson, which must flip a sudden six-game skid into a four-wins-in-three-days ride, or school’s out for summer.
Lifted by a motivated catcher’s big bat and starting pitcher’s blissful ignorance, Liberty blasted the Tigers 8-3 Friday afternoon to open the NCAA Columbia Regional in front of 5,604 fans — most of them wearing orange and purple, shaking their heads on the trail out of Carolina Stadium.
“They had an answer for everything we threw out there today, and we weren’t very sharp,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “The bottom line is we’ve got to have some tournament players step up and stir things up.”
All week, players and coaches from Clemson and South Carolina squirmed, constantly hearing they were preordained to face off for a regional baseball title again.
Imagine how Liberty and Saint Louis must have felt being told they had no chance — especially the Flames, making their first NCAA Division I regional appearance since 2000 (fourth in school history) and 1-6 in the tournament entering 2013.
“Could be one of the biggest wins in the history of Liberty baseball,” said Liberty coach Jim Toman, a South Carolina assistant under Ray Tanner from 1997-2007. “We don’t have anything to lose down here. We felt all along we don’t have any pressure on us. We’re not even supposed to be here.”
Flames fifth-year senior catcher Trey Wimmer, extremely familiar with the Tigers, derailed the dreamy Clemson-USC matchup — at least for now — with a scintillating six-RBI performance.
Wimmer was plenty motivated, hailing from Greenwood, situated halfway between Clemson and Columbia. The kid raised to root for the Tigers (and whose brother attends Clemson) went 1-2-3 in the RBI column in his first three at-bats, yielding a sacrifice fly, a 2-run double and a no-doubt 3-run homer to left to blow the game open.
“I got a lot of first-pitch fastballs, and swung on those,” Wimmer said. “I never had a dream to play for Clemson; I just wanted to play Division I baseball, but yeah, it would have been awesome; in high school, everybody wanted to play for Clemson or South Carolina. It was nice to get a win against a team you grew up liking.”
The six RBIs in are the most Clemson has allowed an individual this year. It’s not an easy feat; nobody on the Tigers’ current roster has ever driven in six runs in a Clemson uniform.
The guy aiming at Wimmer’s catching mitt wasn’t bad himself. Flames starter Josh Richardson (4-4) retired 17 consecutive Tigers in his third straight 8-inning outing and second career complete game, taming the Tigers (39-21) in an overall flat outing at the worst possible time.
“My personal thing is, I really don’t think that much. I’m not a huge thinker on the mound,” Richardson said. “The only thing I was thinking out there is, this game is taking forever.”
If Clemson’s staff of arms isn’t in disarray, it’s at least drained after using six different pitchers on a toasty afternoon. Starter Zack Erwin (5-2) took the quick hook after just 22/3 innings, locating the strike zone on 30 of 43 pitches but letting the Flames find their groove at the plate.
Leggett rolled the dice with Erwin, hoping to save his best starter for a winner’s bracket assignment during the weekend. He’ll take no chances in the Tigers’ first elimination game Saturday afternoon.
“We’ll probably go with (Daniel) Gossett tomorrow, and (then) just game by game,” Leggett said. “The bad pitches we made, they hit them with men on base, and that’s the simple story of the day.”
Outhit 13-6, the Tigers’ gloves also were off-target, committing a pair of errors.
“Just couldn’t make a big pitch (or) get a big hit, and we were very average defensively,” Leggett said. “In all three phases of the game, we weren’t all that good today – and they played well.”
Liberty’s bats went boom or bust — five extra-base hits, 11 strikeouts – and it paid off, landing in Saturday night’s assignment and safe from elimination until at least Sunday. The Flames (35-27) have won six straight, surging from its roll to the Big South championship.
Meanwhile, Clemson is forced to flip over from its six-game slide on the double. Unless it wins four games in three days – beginning Saturday at 2 p.m. against Friday night’s South Carolina-Saint Louis loser — the Tigers won’t survive to see a super regional.
“As of right now,” freshman right fielder Steven Duggar lamented, “we’re fighting for our season, and some guys’ careers.”
The top of Clemson’s lineup did the only damage. Duggar singled home senior center fielder Thomas Brittle twice in their first two times through the order.
There was a Liberty mound meeting after the first three batters Richardson faced, while the visiting bullpen was already active without even recording an out.
But Richardson, a converted reliever, zoned in starting with the third inning – following Duggar’s second RBI single to cut the Liberty lead to 3-2, he set down the next 17 Tigers in succession. Duggar’s single broke the streak to lead off the ninth inning, finishing 3-for-4 with a run and two RBIs.
From cleanup hitter Garrett Boulware down the lineup, the Tigers were 1-for-21.
“A lot of guys were anxious to get up there and start swinging, and weren’t letting the ball get there,” Brittle said. “We were hitting weak ground balls and making it easy for their defense to work.”
Junior first baseman Jon McGibbon has been ruled out for the weekend with a hamstring injury; freshman Kevin Bradley started in his place.