SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Gamecocks, Tigers make baseball progress
COLUMBIA — Even with Michael Roth, Matt Price and Christian Walker in professional spring training camps, No. 7 South Carolina on Sunday won the pivotal game of the Clemson series, 8-0, and without drama.
The unranked, unusually young Tigers fell apart in the five-run sixth inning at Carolina Stadium but held together long enough Saturday to win a game in Greenville against superior talent.
The famously loose Gamecocks did their version of the “Harlem Shake” in the dugout in the fourth inning.
The Tigers were undone by a costly error, just as in their 6-0 Friday night loss at Clemson.
But both teams mined inspiration out of Rivalry Weekend, relatively speaking.
The team realistically aiming for a fourth straight College World Series appearance got what it wanted.
The rebuilding Upcountry upstarts feel good about themselves, too. Consider that Clemson, maligned with rivalry baggage, starts at least three freshmen among other lineup newcomers.
“They'll find their way,” Gamecocks head coach Chad Holbrook said, “and we're still trying to find ours.”
South Carolina won't always get help from sloppy defense in the SEC gauntlet.
Clemson might have to squeeze its way through every weekend series in the rugged ACC, and avoid costly mistakes.
Belcher and Bright
The Gamecocks showed off experience and roster versatility few programs enjoy.
Belcher and Bright
Fifth-year senior lefty Nolan Belcher, a weekend starter as a true freshman, threw a shutout.
Sophomore Connor Bright, an infielder by trade, got a start in right field and knocked in two runs (double, single, hit by pitch).
“Connor is not the most talented kid on the team,” Holbrook said of the Wando High School graduate, “but he has a little a bit of those intangibles that (third baseman) Chase Vergason has and (former third baseman) Adrian Morales had; he believes he's pretty good. He's confident and he's aggressive. I felt if we were going to lose the game, we were going to go down with an aggressive bunch, and that's why I put Connor in there. I wanted aggressive at-bats. I wanted an aggressive guy who was going to swing.”
Clemson head coach Jack Leggett probably watched tape of Wofford, the Tigers' Wednesday night opponent, on the bus ride home.
“I feel good about my team,” he said after falling to 6-4. “I feel good about the way we played (Saturday). I've seen flashes of what we've got. We have some good young players. Our starting pitching was good this weekend, and that's how we've got to be to compete in our conference. And we're capable of playing very good defense.”
You expect no less bullishness this early in the season from Leggett, but the 6-3 victory Saturday in Greenville gave the spin credibility. The Tigers were led by freshmen on the mound (pitcher Clate Schmidt), at bat (Steven Duggar) and on defense (shortstop Tyler Krieger). Freshman left fielder Maleeke Gibson singled.
“It's the best rivalry in college baseball, it really is,” said Scott Firth, Clemson's Sunday starting pitcher. “There was a lot of excitement surrounding this weekend. It gave us some good experience. Some younger guys got to get in big-time games this weekend. Moving forward, we just have to stay a little bit loose and we have to execute better.”
'A big team day'
That Clemson dodged a sweep is a minor victory that might pay off later. Just maybe not this season.
'A big team day'
The ACC is so tough that North Carolina was Baseball America's preseason No. 1 pick nationally, and ACC coaches picked N.C. State to win the league championship.
Maybe next year.
For now, South Carolina continues to project to a higher standard.
“It's a big team day,” Bright said. “We came together as a team and won that game. From here on out, I see us doing well.”
The new head coach without the old stars was upbeat, too.
“I'd have been very upset with my team if they weren't ready to go, and they didn't rise to the occasion,” Holbrook said. “That doesn't guarantee we're going to win. They had a chip on their shoulder, and that was good to see.”Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.