COLUMBIA — For a fleeting moment, there was hope in the Clemson dugout as all eyes turned toward the Sunday evening sky.
With two outs and a runner on in the bottom of the ninth, the fluid left-handed swing of Citadel transfer Brad Felder squared up a Tyler Webb pitch and sent it on an arc to deep right-center field at Carolina Stadium. Clemson players and coaches watched the trajectory, hopefully and helplessly. If the ball cleared the fence, they would play today for a regional title. If the ball was caught, their season was over.
South Carolina right fielder Adam Matthews moved to the warning track, where he settled and raised his glove to secure the final out in South Carolina’s 4-3 regional-clinching win.
The final swing offered a sampling of the broader close-but-not-enough, small-margin-for-error narrative of Clemson’s season.
“Off the bat you are just praying, ‘C’mon, please,’ ” said Clemson’s Richie Shaffer of Felder’s final swing. “It’s a pretty deflating feeling. You are just watching it sail through the air and you are just hoping (Matthews) trips on a rock or something.”
There was to be no rock, no mishap.
The final out came to rest in Matthew’s glove, but the hopes of upsetting South Carolina on its home field were really lost the night before when the Tigers took a lead into the ninth but blew a save opportunity and lost in 12 innings. The climb through the losers’ bracket at a road venue is nearly impossible, especially for a Clemson team thin on pitching depth.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett said he was unable to sleep in his hotel room as Saturday night became Sunday morning.
Though unable to change the course of events, Leggett said he kept replaying them through his mind. He knew the opportunity missed. He knew his team would have to win three straight games to advance, and he knew he had exhausted his best pitchers in the loss. Clemson threw 463 pitches as a staff in a 27-hour, three-game period from Saturday night to Sunday.
It left Leggett with only David Haselden and Jonathan Meyer as options to start against South Carolina on Sunday after Dominic Leone offered a stellar outing earlier in the day to defeat Coastal Carolina, 5-3, in an elimination game.
Haselden allowed three runs in the first inning Sunday and while Jonathan Meyer was excellent in relief — 81/3 innings, one run, two walks, four strikeouts — the Tigers never were able to even the score.
“I’ll play this game over and over in my mind tonight on the bus ride home (Sunday night) because that’s what I do.”
Leggett will likely think about the decision to start Haselden. He will think about the close calls — the runner interference on Saturday, Joey Pankake’s close scoring play at the plate Sunday. Leggett will think about how good USC starter Jordan Montgomery was Sunday — 62/3 innings, five hits, two runs, one walk, six strikeouts — and wonder if Clemson could have had a better approach.
Leggett will go through what he calls “PSD,” post-season depression.
“You’re on a fast-moving train,” Leggett said, “and suddenly the tracks end.”