Leggett’s gamble, Clemson’s defense fall short vs. USC

Clemson head coach Jack Leggett (left) questions home plate umpire Jack Cox about a call in the fifth inning.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett gambled Friday night in a series-opening, 6-0, loss against South Carolina.

Trying to add another quality bat to the lineup to aid a struggling offense, to become more right-handed against lefty South Carolina ace Jordan Montgomery, Leggett traded defense for offense.

Leggett moved Shane Kennedy, the team’s designated hitter, to left field so he could pencil in right-handed hitter Kevin Bradley in the lineup at DH. It was Kennedy’s first time in the field this season. Leggett sat freshman outfielder Maleeke Gibson, a quick-footed athlete who has given Clemson the equivalent of another center fielder in left field.

Trailing USC by just a run in the seventh inning, South Carolina’s T.J. Costen lofted a flyball to left field. Kennedy struggled to track the ball’s flight in the night sky and dropped the ball. The error resulted in three unearned runs in the inning.

For Clemson (5-3), which has little margin for error with so little offensive punch — two home runs in eight games and just one batter hitting over .300 — such defensive lapses can be decisive, especially against a quality opponent like South Carolina (7-1).

“I put Shane out there because we were trying to get a little offense going and he hadn’t been able to play out there very much,” Leggett said. “It was a high ball in the night time and we haven’t played in the night yet. It was a new experience and unfortunately he dropped the ball.”

Of course South Carolina only needed a single run Friday; the significance of the unearned runs can be debated. What cannot be debated is the Clemson offense is struggling. Leggett said the team’s collective approach must improve.

“You have to score to win,” Leggett said. “We have to hit more groundballs and get on top of the baseball more and strikeout less. …. We didn’t get to use our speed or get the bunting game going.

We got beat on some fastballs. We got a little underneath. When a guy (Montgomery) is throwing a good high fastball you have to get on top of the baseball.”

Doug Kingsmore Stadium was a place where flyballs went to die on Friday as a stiff breeze blew directly in. Clemson had 12 flyball outs and Montgomery struck out another nine Tigers, allowing just three hits over eight innings.

Clemson catcher Garrett Boulware thought he had hit a line-drive homer in the fifth inning but the umpire crew ruled it had hit the top of the wall and bounced back into play. Boulware over slid third base and was tagged out. It was Clemson’s closest flirtation with a run.

“We have to get on top of the baseball,” Boulware said. “We are a really fast team. We haven’t shown it yet.”

Clemson ace Daniel Gossett (2-1) might become accustomed with little run support. Gossett was perfect through three innings and allowed just one run through six innings. Despite throwing 95 pitches he came out for the seventh.

“I felt great,” Gossett said. “I told coach I wanted one more and he said I was fine to go.”

It was in the seventh that the Clemson defense and his command, issuing two walks, led to a sixth Clemson loss in seven games against its rival. Said Gossett of the stretch: “It definitely sucks.”