Liberty run messes with USC, Clemson

Mary Ann Chastain/AP South Carolina's Tanner English slides safely into home as Liberty's catcher Trey Wimmer waits on the throw in the third inning of an NCAA regional game against Liberty on Sunday in Columbia. The game was postponed until today with USC ahead, 4-2, in the fifth inning.

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA — Jim Toman called his former employer “this juggernaut that is South Carolina baseball.”

The jovial Liberty head coach also said his team was “awfully lucky” Sunday to eliminate a “very good Clemson team.”

The pesky Flames with their unexpected success in the Columbia Regional have sent the host Gamecocks and No. 2 seed Tigers on their separate paths with major question marks.

Is South Carolina adequately tested without having to play Clemson?

Will scoring only four runs in 18 innings against No. 3 seed Liberty haunt Clemson deep into next May? Or inspire the young Tigers starting this week?

There were enough shaky Gamecocks moments against Saint Louis on Friday night and Liberty on Sunday night — a 4-2 South Carolina lead before the game was suspended in the fifth inning — to make fans squirm.

Clemson fans have been shaking their heads for four postseasons.

Perhaps it's light-hearted if the garnet consistency machine rolls into the College World Series for the fourth year in a row.

Toman said Ray Tanner, his old boss at South Carolina, owes him a bonus for defeating Clemson twice.

“I'll be expecting a check from the big guy,” Toman said.

Liberty has a spiffy new on-campus ballpark, and obviously some formidable talent. Baseball America considers center fielder Ryan Cordell the top 2013 Major League Draft prospect in the Columbia Regional. Catcher Trey Wimmer of Greenwood wrecked Clemson, his former favorite program.

But the same Flames trailed Charleston Southern 1-0 in the sixth inning of a Big South tournament game that was almost the 2013 finale for the Liberty dreamers.

No. 1 national seed North Carolina, likely to host the Gamecocks this week in a super regional, was a lock for the NCAA tournament all season.

Of course, the Carolina-Carolina collision course is assuming the Tar Heels can dispatch Chapel Hill Regional No. 2 seed Florida Atlantic tonight. North Carolina has its own concerns after the Owls' stunning 3-2 comeback victory Sunday.

South Carolina maintains a pitching staff that minimizes mistakes. The Gamecocks, built for the postseason, are quite capable of vaulting from Chapel Hill to Omaha.

They won an SEC series at LSU in last April.

But everyone in the Gamecocks clubhouse knows North Carolina is the No. 1 national seed for a reason, and history says the home/road split is a bigger super regional difference than the 232 miles from Carolina Stadium to Chapel Hill.

The Gamecocks entering Sunday night's game against Liberty were 15-0 in NCAA tournament games at Carolina Stadium, which started in 2010 with the first of South Carolina's back-to-back national championship runs.

The Gamecocks in super regionals played outside of the Columbia city limits? Just 1-3 (won at Coastal Carolina in 2010).

Of course, Clemson would love to have such problems.

“Maybe this time next year we'll be celebrating,” Clemson freshman outfielder Steven Duggar said Sunday after Liberty eliminated the Tigers.

Clemson at the Columbia Regional went with five freshmen starters, two freshmen starting pitchers and sophomore catcher Garrett Boulware.

“Once I get past (Sunday),” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said, “I choose to look at this as a really positive year and a positive future.”

The Gamecocks are readjusting their focus on a positive present.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.