USC beats Clemson 5-4 in a 12-inning classic
COLUMBIA — LB Dantzler stepped on first base and took a few strides toward second before pulling off his helmet and skipping it across the infield dirt.
He tossed his head back and looked up at the Saturday evening sky, and now he could really hear the 8,000-plus fans roaring all around him, and see his teammates rushing toward him, and feel everything he hoped he would feel when he spent the past two years at a junior college, auditioning for his place in big-stage college baseball.
“Just an unbelievable feeling,” he said later.
The enormity of it all made it seem not quite real. There were too many moments to process from one of the longest and most dramatic games South Carolina has ever played against its fiercest rival, Clemson.
It was a game that the black-and-white box score will say USC won, 5-4, on Dantzler’s single off the right-field wall in the bottom of the 12th inning. It lasted four hours and six minutes, and required all 398 of its pitches to decide. It was the eighth time USC and Clemson had met in the NCAA tournament, and the first time they needed extra innings.
But the colorful, vibrant moments — the ones that will live forever in the rivalry — are what made the game so extraordinary, what turned the winning coach into a kid again and left the losing coach replaying it all in his mind, what made the players practically pinch themselves. Stunningly — almost unbelievably — the game nearly ended twice before Dantzler’s hit, but came inches short both times.
You have to wonder how they can top it, if they do it again today. Clemson plays at noon against Coastal Carolina. The winner of that faces USC at 4, and the Gamecocks’ freshman starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery. If USC wins, it wins the regional and advances to the super regionals. If USC loses, it must play again Monday night.
After what happened Saturday, nobody wanted to talk about Sunday or Monday.
“Games like that are why you play the game,” said USC center fielder Evan Marzilli.
He compared it to a rollercoaster, and these are the days when “you just try to hang on,” said USC coach Ray Tanner.
There was the bases-loaded no-out jam in the second that USC ace pitcher Michael Roth escaped without allowing a run, thanks in part to a baserunner interference call. There was the Adam Matthews two-run home run in the fourth that put USC up 2-0. There was shortstop Joey Pankake helping USC wiggle out of a first-and-second, no-out predicament in the fifth by tracking a grounder into the hole and flipping to third.
Nobody hung on better than Pankake, a freshman who wrestled with being too hard on himself all year. He sailed a throw to first base in the seventh that would have completed an inning-ending double play. Instead, the go-ahead run scored, and Clemson led 3-2. Then 4-2 after Brad Felder’s eighth-inning homer.
USC got one in the eighth, and would have won it on a single by Pankake in the ninth, through the late afternoon shadows cast across the field — except it only tied the game at 4. Chase Vergason, the winning run, dove past home plate, missed it, crawled through the dust to get back, but was tagged out.
An inning later, it was almost over again, then wasn’t. Matthews hit a fly to left field that sailed and sailed and bounced off the top of the wall, and back onto the field. Tanner watched the ball soar. Somebody jumped in front of him in the dugout. Tanner lost the ball. Assistant coach Drew Meyer had to tell him what happened. “Crazy,” Tanner said later, and he wondered more than once, “How many chances are you going to get?”
Finally, with one out in the 12th, Dantzler got the fastball he was looking for from Clemson’s best pitcher, Kevin Brady. It was the last and loudest of the day’s moments, and probably the one that Clemson coach Jack Leggett will find hardest to forget.
Dantzler said he took time Saturday to just look around and absorb it all.
Tanner let his imagination run wild in his press conference. He said he would love for someone to take Clemson and USC on a bus ride to a deserted island, where they would play a best-of-seven series and eat dinner together every night — just the coaches, the players, the game.
“There would be some fun in that,” he said.