Cougars upend Gamecocks in college baseball opener

Taylor Clarke pitched College of Charleston to a 6-3 season-opening victory over No. 13 South Carolina on Friday. (AP/File)

For the College of Charleston, it’s becoming a recurring theme — entering the home ballpark of an SEC powerhouse, and leaving with a victory.

The Cougars did just that at the end of last season, when they won an NCAA Regional at SEC champion Florida. And they did it again Friday, when Taylor Clarke handcuffed No. 13 South Carolina for six innings, and Charleston left Carolina Stadium with a 6-3 season-opening victory over the two-time national champions.

The loss was South Carolina’s first on opening day since a 1998 setback to — College of Charleston. The victory was just the Cougars’ second in their last 11 games against USC, but that history didn’t matter to a team that lost a pair of 1-0 games at Texas Tech in the NCAA Super Regionals last season.

“We had high expectations last year, and we have high expectations this year,” said Clarke, who allowed two hits and struck out five. “Our confidence was through the roof.”

The Gamecocks were outhit 14-4, and went just 1-of-9 with runners on base. First baseman Kyle Martin, USC’s leading hitter last season, did not start due to a violation of team rules and entered the game in the third inning. South Carolina was also without starting shortstop Marcus Mooney, who sat out with a hamstring injury.

“It just looked like we were overmatched,” said USC coach Chad Holbrook. “It looked like we couldn’t see the ball. I don’t know. The guy, (Clarke) just dominated us with really one pitch. That’s disappointing.”

Martin said the Gamecocks “didn’t come out with as much excitement as we usually have,” and Holbrook wondered if the punishment to his best hitter for an unspecified rule violation took a toll on the entire team.

“Maybe it sucked the energy out of the dugout when he wasn’t in the lineup. I don’t know,” he said. “He’s our leader, and maybe everyone was looking around wondering why isn’t he in there. Just a disappointing day.”

There were no such concerns for the Cougars, even though they were without top starter Bailey Ober, shelved with shoulder soreness. Clarke endured a shaky first inning, walking three straight and allowing a run on a bases-loaded walk to Mount Pleasant native Connor Bright. But he quickly found a rhythm, avoiding any further damage thanks to a double play and retiring 16 of the final 18 batters he faced.

“Outside of Taylor Clarke’s first inning, he settled in well, which is what you look for in a veteran starting pitcher,” said Cougars head coach Monte Lee.

Clarke “just dominated our hitters,” Holbrook said. “I thought we’d put up more of a fight than we did.”

Charleston broke open the game with a three-run fifth. The Cougars sent eight men to the plate, bringing home runs on a Blake Butler single, a Carl Wise sacrifice fly and a Morgan Phillips infield hit. RBI singles by Wise and Ryan Brown plated additional runs in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively.

USC closed the gap in the eighth with a pair of runs against reliever Wade Arduini, but Bright popped out and Patrick Harington struck out to strand two runners on base. Holbrook said he intended to shuffle South Carolina’s batting order in advance of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Cougars.

“That performance from an offensive standpoint today was inexcusable, in my book,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Cougars are now eyeing a potential series victory over another SEC opponent. How is their confidence level?

“As high as it could possibly go,” Wise said. “All these guys, we just have each other’s back. We have the utmost confidence in everyone on this team.”

Due to weather concerns Sunday, the teams will play a doubleheader Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. Wil Crowe (8-3, 2.75) will start the opener for USC against Charleston’s Nathan Helvey (3-4, 3.78), while Josh Reagan (3-0, 0.36) will start the nightcap for the Gamecocks against Eric Bauer (6-2, 2.09).

Zack Madden, a redshirt freshman outfielder and Bishop England High School graduate, made the USC team coming out of fall practice but quit earlier this month.

Madden appeared in five games last season (no at-bats) and scored one run (against Clemson).