Tigers stay alive with thrashing of Crimson Tide

The Tigers celebrate after Brad Miller slugs a grand slam Sunday.

CLEMSON -- The only roadblock remaining for Clemson on its road to Omaha is a peanut.

After routing Alabama, 19-5, Sunday night to set up an elimination game at 1 p.m. today (ESPN2), all that stands between Clemson and its first College World Series appearance since 2006 is Alabama pitcher Nathan "Peanut" Kilcrease.

Though the 5-5 Kilcrease is lacking in stature, the right-hander has come up big this spring, having already produced three postseason wins.

Kilcrease (8-2, 2.42 ERA) figures to offer a more formidable challenge than the Crimson Tide's Sunday starter, Adam Morgan, who allowed eight runs in 2 1/3 innings.

Clemson will counter today with its own Seabiscuit-like underdog, 5-10, 175-pound freshman Dominic Leone, who in addition to the pressure of an elimination game will be tested by temperatures expected to rise into the mid-90s.

Leone hopes for similar offensive help as Clemson produced 20 hits, three home runs and 30 base runners Sunday.

"The belt buckle to belly button is not a good place to throw pitches," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "Clemson barreled up 24, 25 balls tonight."

The Tigers scored six times off Morgan in the first inning.

The Tigers' left-handed hitters used an effective approach of keeping their shoulders in against the lefty Morgan's quality breaking ball. It was the most first-inning runs for Clemson in an NCAA playoff game since June 5, 1959, when the Tigers scored six times against Florida State.

Clemson (42-23) knocked Morgan from the game in the third after back-to-back home runs by John Hinson and Richie Shaffer gave Clemson an 8-1 lead.

While Alabama elected to save Kilcrease, Clemson tossed No. 2 starter Scott Weismann in a must-win scenario Sunday. Weismann attacked the strike zone, allowing four runs over six innings.

Clemson has had trouble with its No. 3 spot in the rotation all year. When asked why he is starting Leone today, Clemson coach Jack Leggett said "because he's a good pitcher" and because of Alabama's right-handed heavy lineup.

In his two postseason appearances, Leone has allowed three runs in 1 1/3 innings.

Brad Miller, who added a grand slam during a nine-run sixth Sunday, believes Clemson can rollover confidence, and offensive support, into today.

"We've been in a lot of situations where our backs are against the wall," Miller said. "We feel like we have to prove something."

While the Tigers have done well in tough spots, so has Kilcrease.

In the Atlanta Regional elimination game last Monday, Kilcrease allowed two runs over six innings of relief work against Georgia Tech, striking out eight on two days rest.

Kilcrease also won the opening game of the regional against Elon, throwing 206 pitches in a 72-hour period.

Kilcrease leads the Alabama staff in ERA and has allowed just 70 hits in 93 innings to go along with an 81-19, strikeout-to-walk ratio. He throws in the low 90s with excellent location.

"If I have to win one game he is the guy," Gaspard said. "We know he is going to compete like crazy."

Of course none of that is likely to impress a Clemson team that has faced three pitchers drafted in the first round this season: Florida Gulf Coast's Chris Sale, North Carolina's Matt Harvey and Georgia Tech's Deck McGuire.

The Tigers weren't impressed by any of Alabama's six pitchers Sunday and if they can rollover their offensive effort they'll be Nebraska bound.

"My dream tonight will be for us to come out and play like we are capable of playing," Leggett said. "We know we can't take anything (from Sunday) in to (today)."

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