Clemson adds series seriousness to baseball rivalry with South Carolina
GREENVILLE — Clemson pitcher Clate Schmidt let out a shout Saturday on the way from the Fluor Field mound to the Tigers’ dugout. Oh, the joy of inducing a groundout to preserve a five-run lead.
“Just Barbarian,” the freshman said of his fifth-inning outburst. “I mean, nothing in particular. I don’t know if I said anything at all.”
His triumphant yell, plus a sigh of relief pitching, breathed new life into a rivalry desperately in need of balance.
The Tigers arrived in Greenville as the foil.
They leave with more respect from fans and foes, even in the three-game series with a 6-3 victory over No. 7 South Carolina on a cold, strange day full of orange stocking caps and garnet gloves.
In a rivalry the Gamecocks have owned lately, you might think the day Clemson grabs momentum is the day it snows on players.
Spectators who arrived from Columbia and the Lowcountry went through a brief blizzard near Laurens and the game was delayed one hour by a wintry mix.
Before darkness, Clemson had its seventh win in the 23 series games played since the start of the 2008 season. That includes South Carolina’s 6-0 victory at Clemson on Friday night.
It’s still the best rivalry in college baseball, but any rivalry loses steam in tilt mode. For instance, we no longer get worked up over USA-Russia basketball games or anything involving the Mets.
Another season of South Carolina taking the series is good for the Gamecocks, bad for series popularity.
At least a young Clemson team is making 2013 interesting.
“Beating a good program like they have is always nice to do,” said Clemson’s Thomas Brittle, a senior who played at Berkeley High School. “We let one slip away from us (Friday night) and did not play our best. We wanted to come out here and be aggressive early in the game and try and get some things going.”
Brittle made the play of the day, a diving catch to rob South Carolina shortstop Joey Pankake of an extra-base hit in the fourth inning. Mostly, however, the Tigers relied on three freshmen: Schmidt, right fielder Steven Duggar and shortstop Tyler Krieger.
Schmidt played high school baseball in Acworth, Ga., but was born in Beaufort. His father flew F-18 fighter jets for 20 years before becoming a pilot with Delta.
Alas, the Gamecocks probably get the last Schmidt laugh: younger brother Clarke Schmidt is a Class of 2014 pitcher committed to South Carolina.
It’s more than possible that rivalry games played this early in the season mean more to fans than to players and coaches.
“Listen, it’s an important series,” first-year South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook said. “(But) win or lose (Sunday), it’s not going to dictate the rest of our season. It’s not going to dictate the rest of Clemson’s season. It’s just a nice series to win. It’s an important series to win. That’s the way we treat it. It’s going to be like a Super Regional feel (Sunday), and it’s a good audition for us.”
Leggett offered a similar take.
“You guys can make all the big deal you want out of it,” he said to reporters after the game. “It’s a big deal for us; it’s a big deal for them. We know that. But my job (Friday night) was to try and get us focused on what we had to do (Saturday) and get that behind us. We’ll enjoy this one for now and get ready for (Sunday).”
Still, rivalry success makes for passionate support, which builds great programs.
To make Game 2 really mean something – and renovate the rivalry - Clemson must follow-up and win its first series against South Carolina since 2006.Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.