CLEMSON — The rivalry heated up on March 6 last season.
After Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a first-inning, opposite-field home run off Clemson ace Kevin Brady — who is expected to start the series opener on 6 p.m. Friday at Riley Park — Clemson coach Jack Leggett lit a match and tossed it into the powder keg that is the in-state rivalry by having umpires check the former Gamecocks star's bat for tampering, ostensibly for bat-warming, a practice some believe increases bat performance.
Frustration had reached a boil for Clemson. A year earlier, South Carolina eliminated Clemson from the College World Series by defeating the Tigers in back-to-back days in Omaha en route to beating its rival to college baseball's summit, the first in-state program to win a College World Series.
Clemson was also frustrated with the new offense-depressing bats as Clemson's Easton models, which were said by some to be less effective than the Rawlings bats South Carolina employed last March.
Leggett checked Bradley Jr.'s bat and South Carolina coach Ray Tanner responded with a rant.
"I didn't appreciate it, I'm offended by it. I don't cheat," said Tanner last spring before leading USC to its second straight national title. "We had to put up with some shenanigans."
Tension between No. 16 Clemson (4-2) and No. 3 South Carolina (6-0), and perhaps the level of play on the field, has never been higher as the two teams renew their rivalry series at 6 p.m. Friday at Riley Park.
While 'bat gate' and recent College World Series events have heightened the public's interest in this weekend's barnstorming series Leggett does not believe the rivalry's intensity has been elevated to never-seen-before levels.
"It's been intense since I've been here, for 20 years, it hasn't changed as far as I'm concerned," Leggett said. "It's one of those things you're very aware of what it means to everybody so I don't think it's changed. It's the same thing when Coach (Bill) Wilhelm was here and I was his assistant."
Tanner echoed Leggett, downplaying the recent history between the programs.
"I think it's always been intense," Tanner said. "I think it's been a great rivalry and has been for a long, long time."
Tanner says it has been the best rivalry in the country a sentiment shared by objective third parties like Cleveland Indians scouting director Bud Grant.
"From my experience, I just don't think there's a better baseball rivalry in the country," Tanner said. "When you look at players, you look at fans, you look at attendance, you look at the ticket. It's a tough ticket. How many series in college baseball are tough tickets? There's a few, but this is a great, great rivalry. I know a lot of people like to think, ‘Well, it's been ratcheted up a notch.' Eh, you know, it's always been pretty high (in) the way I've viewed it."
Leggett noted the level of play is "certainly part of a good rivalry" and Tanner said the College World Series has added another platform for the rivalry.
Clemson has made 12 College World Series trips – six under Leggett – while South Carolina has made 10, five under Tanner.
"We took an in-state rivalry to the national stage," Tanner said. "That makes it somewhat special. I don't know if it could get more intense than it already is."
Said Clemson third baseman Richie Shaffer: "Both (programs) have had a great decade of baseball. We've been in the national spotlight a lot … I think that does amplify it."
If the play on the field remained at the same level of intensity last season, the words off of it rose to a higher level.
Leggett was asked last week about his relationship with Tanner, a year after Tanner said Bat Gate had damaged their relationship.
"I respect his program and him and that's as good a compliment as I can give out," Leggett said. "Hopefully they feel the same way."
The feeling they do share is that the rivalry is as intense and meaningful as any in the country and on Friday it returns to the field in Charleston.