COLUMBIA — At the plate, Clemson’s hitters are expected to be patient. Power is just a bonus.
Too proud to go home winless for the second postseason weekend in a row, the Tigers rode the rare long ball to boot Saint Louis, 10-2, Saturday afternoon, snapping a six-game losing streak before an announced attendance of 5,485 fans at Carolina Stadium in the NCAA Columbia Regional losers’ bracket.
Junior second baseman Steve Wilkerson flipped from reeling to raking, driving in a career-high five runs with a couple of balls well over the wall in consecutive frames. He was the unlikely hero, unfazed by a 2 for 26 slump over six games before squaring his home run total to four this season in the third and fourth innings Saturday.
In his second shot after striking out in the first inning, Wilkerson trotted out of the box upon popping a long two-run shot to right, bouncing off the concourse pavement and into a parking lot across the street.
“It’s always big to break the ice, get that first run across the plate,” Wilkerson said. “It creates energy in the dugout and gets everybody going. It kept building on each other, and we started swinging the rest of the day.”
Third baseman Shane Kennedy backed up Wilkerson with his fifth home run in the third, the first time this season Clemson (40-21) went deep twice in one inning and the club’s first three-homer day all year. The Tigers had rounded the bases just 19 times this year entering Saturday, ranking ninth in the ACC.
Before the pair of home runs, Clemson had spent 25 consecutive innings tied or trailing dating back to Game 2 of the ACC tournament, when North Carolina stormed back in the ninth inning to beat the Tigers.
“When we swing the bats, we’re pretty good,” said coach Jack Leggett, who clinched his 16th 40-win season in 20 years with Clemson. “And the game’s a lot more fun.”
The fourth inning blew the game open, and the catalyst was Tyler Slaton, Clemson’s No. 9 hitter working an eight-pitch walk two batters before Wilkerson socked a three-run, two-out blast to chase Saint Louis starter Nick Bates (8-4).
When Liberty’s Josh Richardson never threw more than 16 pitches in an inning Friday, and no more than 13 after the first inning, senior outfielder Thomas Brittle scolded the Tigers afterward for an overly-aggressive approach.
It was different story Saturday. As a point of reference, Richardson threw 104 pitches in his complete game. Saint Louis needed 108 to get out of the first four innings.
“Seeing more pitches, it helps in a couple different ways,” Kennedy said. “It allows you to walk, but at the same time it gets the pitcher’s pitch count up. That’s a big thing, to be able to get that pitcher out of there, and to get into their bullpen is huge.”
After a long day for the Clemson bullpen Friday, staff ace Daniel Gossett (10-4) bore the brunt on the mound, laboring through 115 pitches, but allowing just two runs in six innings.
“Goose had to give us a good outing, and he had to give us some innings,” Leggett said. “We didn’t need to go to the bullpen early today. So to get six out of him was good — we were hoping for maybe another one, but it worked out well.”
The sophomore right-hander walked five, but stranded seven runners, good enough for Gossett to become Clemson’s first 10-game winner since Matt Henrie and Steve Reba each earned 13 victories in 2002.
Kennedy went 3 for 5, his second such output in four games.
Clemson poured it on with three insurance runs in the ninth, including an RBI single for freshman Kevin Bradley, who’s replacing regular first baseman Jon McGibbon (hamstring) this weekend.
The regional’s fourth seed, Saint Louis closed out at 41-21. Slugger Alex Kelly was 3 for 4, depositing his 12th home run and 61st RBI into the Clemson bullpen leading off the fifth.
While the Tigers turned a couple of double plays to escape rallies, the Billikens donated four unearned runs on three errors.
“You cannot give any team in a regional extra outs, much less Clemson. It’s gonna bite you,” Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson said.
Hendrickson wasn’t upset with his own team’s effort, rather tipping his cap to the experienced opponent.
“I think we were ready to roll … but obviously they know what they’re doing,” Hendrickson said. “They bounced back like champions today.”
With their backs against the wall, the No. 2-seeded Tigers prolonged their season to at least 1 p.m. today, when they will face Liberty (35-28), which beat Clemson Friday, in another elimination game. “Win or go home — that’s as big as it gets. We’ve been playing good baseball for the last 30 games, and the last six games or so haven’t gone our way,” Wilkerson said. “Now we’re in a situation where we have to win — doesn’t matter who we play, we’ll just try to keep it rolling.”
Leggett said either freshman left-hander Matthew Crownover (7-2, 2.05 ERA), who missed the league tournament with arm soreness, or senior righty Scott Firth (6-5, 3.23) will start today’s matinee. Knowing the opponent could aid the decision.
If Clemson knocks off Liberty loser at 1 p.m., it then must beat South Carolina tonight and Monday night, with no slipups.
“Your backs are up against the wall a little bit — we’ve been there before, we know how to handle those things,” Leggett said. “You can’t win four games in one day. We’ve got to build a tournament right now. It’s not the easiest way to do it, but to be honest with you, we haven’t done anything easy for a long, long time.”
Clemson hasn’t gone home from a regional without at least one victory during the Leggett era — not once since 1981, in fact. The Tigers weren’t about to start now.
“Today was a do-or-die game, and we didn’t just squeak across,” Gossett said. “It’s a new confidence.”
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