GREENVILLE — While speaking to a few lingering reporters in the depths of Fluor Field following Clemson’s 6-3 win over No. 7 South Carolina on Saturday, Tigers coach Jack Leggett was free to dream for a moment.
For at least one night, Leggett was free from the weight of the recent one-sidedness of the rivalry, in which USC has won 19 of the last 27 meetings. The win was Leggett’s first against South Carolina at a neutral site (1-7). In this reprieve, Leggett predicted this freshman class will comprise the core of his next championship-caliber team.
Leggett first saw the class’ precociousness, promise and baseball aptitude in fall practice. Their potential was evident to 7,125 in attendance Saturday in three key moments.
Freshman righty Clate Schmidt had his moment. He kept his composure, and his sinker and slider down in the zone, for the first five innings on a chilly, gray afternoon. In the sixth he allowed back-to-back home runs to South Carolina’s Max Schrock and L.B. Dantzler, but how he responded — striking out the next two batters to end the inning — was perhaps more impressive than his line, limiting USC to two runs over seven innings.
“(Pitching) coach (Dan Pepicelli) has kind of instilled in me that you just step off the mound separate yourself, change the view, take a breath,” Schmidt said. “Let yourself relax then bring yourself back into it.”
Schmidt regrouped, recapturing his mechanics and location, and didn’t let the game slip away.
In the fifth inning, fellow freshman Steve Duggar, who the Houston Astros had considered spending the 61st overall pick in the June draft, came to bat with the bases loaded and two out, Clemson leading, 3-0. Duggar had his moment.
To face the lefty Duggar, USC called upon left-hander Adam Westmoreland. The five-tool talent smashed a Westmoreland fastball back up the middle for what proved to be two critical runs.
“I got a fastball on the outer half and was able to put it up the middle,” said Duggar, who told scouts if he was not a top-six round pick he would attend Clemson.
Freshman shortstop Tyler Krieger showed why he beat out two veterans to earn the shortstop job last month. In the seventh inning, USC’s T.J. Costen bounced a slow roller far to Krieger’s right. Krieger ranged over and backhanded the ball. He quickly threw to second to cut-down the lead runner and perhaps preempt a Gamecocks rally before it could begin.
Another, these-guys-are-good moment.
“He’s calm, he’s collected, he’s under control,” Leggett said. “He’s poised. He’s mature. … He’s pretty good.”
The plays demonstrate the freshman class’ physical gifts and instincts. Leggett has been around many freshman classes since he became Clemson’s head coach in 1994, he thinks this has a chance to be a special group.
“It is (a rare) group, it is,” Leggett said. “Duggar is confident kid. Duggar doesn’t take anything for granted, he is the first guy to get here and last guy to leave. Krieger has played however many games and makes the plays. … You saw what Clate did today.”
There are others too, like lefty freshmen Zack Erwin and Matthew Crownover, freshmen free from Clemson’s experience of the recent bitter defeats against South Carolina. They are free to write their own histories.
“I really like their attitudes,” Leggett said. “They are all baseball.”