SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Young team, old NCAA tournament story for Clemson
COLUMBIA — Clemson held a five-run lead against North Carolina, three outs away from an ACC tournament win over a team headed for No. 1 national seed status in the NCAA tournament. Just a week ago.
What a difference a 14-inning loss to the Tar Heels and one week makes. Fans wearing orange T-shirts and sitting in garnet seats in the left-field stands at Carolina Stadium watched Friday as Liberty's Trey Wimmer launched a game-clinching, three-run homer over their heads.
Never mind that the senior catcher grew up in Greenwood hoping to play for Clemson.
Or that Liberty head coach Jim Toman after the Flames' 8-3 upset victory quipped, “We're just happy to be here in a South Carolina-Clemson circus.”
This young Clemson team — six freshmen in the starting lineup Friday — generally has over-achieved.
But this painful postseason pattern needs a patent.
The same Clemson team that would have sealed regional host rights with that tap-in putt against North Carolina now needs four straight wins to capture the Columbia Regional.
Maybe it's a clever ploy. You know, beat Saint Louis today, whip Liberty on Sunday and get some momentum going into a Sunday night game against South Carolina.
If not, Clemson is in stumble mode for the fourth straight postseason that directly involves archrival South Carolina:
2010. The Gamecocks rally out of the College World Series loser's bracket, beat Clemson twice and go on to sweep Florida for a national championship.
2011. The Tigers, due in Columbia for a super regional, blow the Clemson Regional against Connecticut. South Carolina goes back-to-back in Omaha.
2012. Clemson loses twice to South Carolina in the Columbia Regional.
2013. Unlucky so far.
'It can happen'
It started with Liberty leadoff batter Ashton Perritt smacking a ground-rule double off Clemson's Zack Erwin.
It ended with Tigers head coach Jack Leggett saying he was glad he didn't waste ace sophomore pitcher Daniel Gossett on a game in which Clemson struggled to score.
So Gossett (9-4, 2.53 ERA) gets the nod today.
“And then game by game,” Leggett said. “We've been in this situation before. At least I've been in this situation before.”
Leggett recalled 1999. Clemson lost the first game of the Fayetteville Regional, 23-5 to Missouri State. The Tigers wound up winning the thing, advancing to lose a super regional at Texas A&M.
“It can happen, we just have to play a lot better than we did (Friday),” he said. “We allowed (Liberty) to get some confidence early, and once they got the confidence going, and when we made bad pitches, they hit them with men on base. That's how you win ballgames.”
'Some tough ballgames'
Liberty starter Josh Richardson, a junior right-hander who entered the game with a 3-4 record and a 2.45 ERA, didn't have his best 90-93 mph fastballs Friday. A bit tired from two Big South Conference tournament appearances, he relied more on a two-seam fastball pitch that acts like a changeup.
Clemson hitters were too eager.
“We needed to let the ball travel and let it get there and not be so anxious to get going and get it,” said Thomas Brittle, Clemson's senior center fielder and a Berkeley High School graduate.
Clemson's six-game losing streak certainly includes asterisks: 2-1 loss at Florida State, 6-3 to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament and that 14-inning dance with North Carolina in Durham.
“We've played some tough ballgames, man,” freshman right fielder Steven Duggar said, going over the losses. “It's not like we weren't playing very good baseball. It's just the way it goes sometime. But we have to be ready to bounce back.”
And again Sunday.
And if there aren't people wearing orange T-shirts in those garnet seats Monday night, this is another bitter postseason for Clemson.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff