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'Special' season ends for Clemson in Omaha

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CLEMSON -- Clemson's improbable march to college baseball's final four figures to be tarnished by how the campaign concluded: back-to-back losses to South Carolina, the same devastating result suffered eight years earlier in Omaha.

'Just like 2002,' the chorus will echo.

But in many ways 2010 was different than 2002.

Eight years earlier in Omaha, Clemson arrived as a powerful No. 2 overall seed with National Player of the Year Khalil Greene and two other elite sluggers in Michael Johnson and Jeff Baker. Clemson owned a 52-15 record.

This spring, the Tigers were the only non-No. 1 seed in the College World Series field.

In 2002, the Tigers were thought by some to have been too tight.

This Clemson team was resilient in the season's toughest moments: winning an elimination game at Auburn, winning two straight super regional games versus Alabama, sweeping Florida State to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division. The Tigers had also won the regular season series against South Carolina.

"This is a press conference you want to try to avoid, but I will tell you this: I'm 100 percent extremely proud of our baseball program and our baseball team and how our kids battled,"

Clemson coach Jack Leggett said after Saturday night's loss. "And this whole season, from start to finish, shows the character of our team and the toughness of our team."

Still, the Tigers were in the driver's seat after beating Oklahoma.

And some will wonder how much playing their rival psychologically affected the Tigers in the season's last two games.

"We're not in the state of South Carolina right now, we're on the national stage," Leggett said. "I think that's how it has to be looked at."

The other viewpoint is the Gamecocks simply possessed more talent.

South Carolina, a No. 1 seed, had the look College World Series contender since midseason. South Carolina had the arms and defense Clemson lacked. South Carolina knocked off national seed Coastal Carolina in Myrtle Beach.

"We lost to a really good opponent, that's the bottom line," Clemson second baseman Mike Freeman said. "Regardless of who it is, it's never fun to lose."

The Tigers' hot bats carried the team throughout the NCAA tournament, concealing weaknesses. Those bats cooled against the Gamecocks, having something to do with USC's pitching.

Sam Dyson touched 96 mph early and 94 mph late Saturday.

Hard-throwing Matt Price relived Dyson and closed the door with similar heat.

They were the types of power arms Clemson lacked. Price was the type of end-game piece Clemson was missing, as Clemson never settled on specific bullpen roles.

Leggett pushed many of the right buttons during the postseason: starting Dominic Leone in Game 3 of the super regionals, saving Casey Harman for the winner's bracket game against Auburn, calling on freshman Kevin Brady to secure an Auburn Regional title. Some can question the decision to hold Harman for Saturday, but Matt Roth's performance on Friday might have made that point moot.

Despite the bitter conclusion, for the Tigers the season was successful in a broader context.

"It's a special season, and coming to Omaha made it more special," Freeman said. "It's tough to have to go away early, but it's a special season, nonetheless."

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow him on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).

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