Defense lifts Tide over Tigers

Clemson's Jeff Schaus (left) argues with umpire Dan Mascorro after being called out on strikes in the ninth inning against Alabama on Saturday. Schaus was ejected.

CLEMSON -- The glove of Ross Wilson is where Clemson scoring threats met their death Saturday.

Selected in the 10th round of the major baseball league draft, the Alabama junior was taken not so much for a .274 batting average, but for his smooth glove work at second base.

In the fifth and the eighth innings Saturday, Wilson demonstrated his soft hands, fleet feet, and ability to quickly transition from fielding a ground ball to tossing accurate throws to shortstop, beginning a pair of rally-killing double plays.

Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard credited the plays with saving the day for Alabama in its 5-4 win in the opening game of the Clemson Super Regional.

"I think that is the strength of our ball club, our infield play," Gaspard said. "Three of the four (infielders) have been starting for either three or four years together. You get to this part of season, you have to pick up groundballs and turn double plays.

"That was the key to the game."

Defense is not a strength for Clemson this season.

In the final week of the regular season, Jack Leggett benched shortstop Brad Miller, who has since returned to the lineup.

Clemson has posted its lowest fielding percentage (.962) since 2004, while Alabama has brushed with a .980 mark for most the season.

In a conversation with his former coach a few years back, Leggett asked his mentor, John Winkin, what was the biggest difference between teams in the College World Series and teams that fall short. The old Maine coach said defense, more specifically teams that can turn the double play.

The Crimson Tide did Saturday, and Alabama (42-23) is now just one win from the College World Series. The teams return to the field at 7 p.m. today.

With the bases loaded in the fifth, Clemson's Brad Miller hit a ball sharply to Wilson, who began an inning-ending double play.

In the eighth, it was Mike Freeman who ended Clemson's last best threat with a sharp grounder to Wilson.

"They turned double plays when they had to turn them," Leggett said. "That's the only thing that is going to keep us from tying the game."

The Clemson (41-23) defense faltered.

Two third-inning errors led to four unearned runs.

In the third, Clemson starter Casey Harman bobbled a routine grounder to place runners on first and second with no outs. After sandwiching a hit by pitch around a pair of outs, third baseman John Hinson bobbled a grounder, allowing a run to score. The Crimson Tide followed with back-to-back hits, finishing the inning with a 5-0 lead.

Clemson rallied for four runs in the bottom of the third. And in the sixth, a pinch-hit RBI triple by Chris Epps cut the Alabama lead to 5-4.

But Clemson's eighth-inning rally was its last best chance, and it was ended by a double play.

Harman (8 1/3 innings, one earned run, no walks, nine strikeouts) was sharp enough to keep the Tigers in the game, pitching into the ninth and totaling 122 pitches.

But Alabama starter Jimmy Nelson was also effective, recording 12 groundball outs, including two key double plays, two plays that once again place the Tigers' backs against the wall.

"Nothing this season has been easy," Freeman said. "We are not going to back down."

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks.