Baseball: Clemson squanders sweep shot, downed by UNC 8-7

One more swing, and how sweep — er, sweet, it would have been on Easter Sunday with perhaps a season-turning victory.

Instead, Clemson languished in the land of the brutally mediocre, settling for taking two of three from North Carolina as the Tar Heels’ 8-7 survival Sunday afternoon salvaged their weekend at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

“It’d be nice to have a sweep. It’s tough to do in this conference,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett said. “Every single game is going to come back to help us or haunt it before it’s all over.”

The Tigers haven’t put three wins together in any fashion since Feb. 27, when Clemson won the South Carolina series opener to cap a five-game streak and improve at the time to 6-2.

Now the Tigers are 16-15 (7-8 ACC), badly needing a hot streak to claw back into NCAA Tournament contention.

UNC (18-13, 7-8) flipped a 4-0 deficit after two innings to a 8-4 lead by the seventh-inning stretch, but the Tigers recovered and had two chances to sweep — without conversion.

Three men walked in the eighth inning, giving Clemson the bases loaded and the tying run on third base with no out, but Weston Wilson struck out and Eli White grounded into a double play.

Then in the ninth, with the benefit of two more walks, Clemson had the right guy at the plate. Catcher Chris Okey, the team’s top RBI man with 31 and fresh off his fifth home run of the season in the bottom of the first, needed a single to tie and a gapper to win.

Okey was frozen on a 1-2 count, though, leaving the bat on his shoulder as closer Trent Thornton zipped a 92-mph fastball on the outside corner.

“Very good pitch by a good pitcher,” Okey said. “They’ve been working me away on curveballs all weekend, but it was tough to take that pitch. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap.”

Breaking from the postgame team huddle, Leggett put his arm around Okey’s shoulder and told him to keep his head up.

“He’s our rock, he’s our energy guy,” Leggett said. “Got all the confidence in the world with him, he’s had some huge hits for us. He just got caught thinking a little bit backwards at the end there.”

Clemson starting pitcher Brody Koerner (3-4, 6.49 ERA), who on March 2 delivered the first complete-game shutout of the Gamecocks at home since 1972, is in danger of getting yanked from the weekend rotation.

With Sunday’s loss allowing five runs in five frames, Koerner is now 1-3 with a 12.36 ERA and .429 opponents’ batting average in five ACC outings.

“Really comes down to making a pitch and getting out of (jams), and so far in ACC play, I haven’t gotten the job done,” Koerner said. “I’m still confident in what I can do, and Coach is still giving me an opportunity to run out there.”

Offered Leggett: “Gonna have to look at it a little bit. That’s all there is to it. Brody shows flashes, he’s just got to be more consistent.”

The league year is only half-over, but Clemson is facing the prospect of failing to sweep an ACC opponent since 1993. That was Bill Wilhelm’s last year as head coach.

Since then, the Tigers have either taken or dropped two of three in all six three-game series — with three series victories and three series defeats.

Mid-week one-gamers haven’t gone very well, either: Clemson is 3-4 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays against mostly small-conference competition.

Ultimately, it’s a recipe for .500 ball — and one that won’t result in Clemson making the NCAA Tournament, a rare reality for the program.

“We played really well this weekend. We gave ourselves an opportunity in all three ballgames,” Leggett said. “This one, we had some chances as we went along, and a few things here and there cost you a run here and there.”

Clemson hosts Georgia on Tuesday and Charleston Southern on Wednesday in a make-up game before traveling to Boston College (13-16, 5-9) for the weekend.