COLUMBIA — It’s going to be a long summer lamenting all those lost opportunities and wondering all the “what-ifs” before embarking on preparation for 2014.
Situational hitting on the final day of its season will haunt Clemson for a while, losing 3-1 to Liberty and failing to set up a Sunday night showdown with rival South Carolina in the NCAA Columbia Regional before 5,464 fans at Carolina Stadium.
“I think if you had to pinpoint one thing during the course of the year, that was probably our Achilles’ heel,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “We just had a little trouble coming up with the big hit with two outs or men on base.”
The Tigers’ leadoff man reached base in each of the first five frames Sunday, and one more time trying to rally in the ninth, but only sophomore catcher Garrett Boulware’s fourth-inning RBI single up the middle was able to capitalize, following freshman Steven Duggar’s 10th double.
The Tigers (40-22) were a wince-worthy 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position.
“It’s just kind of the same story for the last week or so,” said Boulware, who was 3 for 4 after going hitless in his first two regional games. “We get them in scoring position, and for whatever reason, we just can’t get the big hit. It’s not one spot in particular; we all want to score the runs. It’s just not falling right now.
“So we’ll learn from it, and we’ll make that adjustment next year.”
For the second straight day, Clemson’s opponent came off short rest following a tough nighttime loss to regional host USC.
While Saint Louis couldn’t lick its wounds the day after letting a tie game in the eighth slip away, Liberty (36-28) quickly erased the sting of being bombarded 19-3 by the Gamecocks.
“It was not a good night (Saturday), but this morning was a new day, and a new chance to be No. 1,” Liberty coach Jim Toman said. “(Our guys) have done that all year when we’re down and people think we’re not very good.”
After Josh Richardson went the distance Friday silencing Clemson’s bats, Flames right-hander Trey Lambert (8-3) was just as solid as his teammate Sunday, lasting 72/3 innings and scattering seven hits with just one unearned run.
Closer Ashton Perritt doused an eighth-inning threat when his 75-mph curveball froze Clemson’s batting average leader, third baseman Shane Kennedy, with the tying runs on second and third.
Two Tigers reached in the ninth, but senior outfielder Thomas Brittle popped up to right, and many Tigers reacted with blank stares out of the dugout, still attempting to process the swoon of seven losses in their final eight games while shaking hands with victorious Liberty.
“Players got to step up. It’s as simple as that. I think that’s it,” Leggett said. “We’ve got some really good players. Getting big hits in big situations is why they pay those RBI guys in the big leagues their money; they can relax and take care of their business. That’s why you pay the closer, because he’s got to come in for clutch situations and do his thing. It’s a matter of getting a little more seasoned, a little more experienced, a little more confidence going.
“Any time you win 40 games and play the schedule we did; we got some big hits along the way. It just seemed like lately it was magnified the last five or six games.”
Liberty second baseman Bryan Aanderud went 4 for 4 with the go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the fourth.
In the final five innings after that, Clemson hitters were 1 for 9 when one swing could have tied or taken the lead.
“I think it goes back to the problem of not getting big hits at the right time,” Duggar said. “Getting hits and getting guys on base wasn’t a problem, it was just getting them in. You’ve got to score runs to win ball games. We just couldn’t get it done when we needed to.”
The Flames donated three wild pitches and a balk, allowing the Tigers plenty of run-scoring opportunities. But of the 13 baserunners, only one crossed the plate, rendering acceptable pitching by starter Matthew Crownover (7-3), Clate Schmidt and Patrick Andrews without reward.
This is the first stretch in the 20-year Leggett era Clemson has gone home before a super regional three years running. This 2013 squad was pointedly young; only Brittle has run out of eligibility from the starting lineup, and 224 innings were logged by freshman pitchers.
“Once I get past today, I’m going to choose to look at this as a really positive year and a positive future,” Leggett said. “Those real positive Clemson people that we have I hope are feeling really good about what we have ahead of us.
“The tough part of it is, it’s over.”