New season, new baseballs, same Cougars

College of Charleston head baseball coach Monte Lee. (photo by Al Samuels).

The eternal optimism of Opening Day was thoroughly tested on a chilly Friday afternoon at Carolina Stadium. Sales of Dippin’ Dots ice cream and Rita’s Italian Ice were not brisk on the shady concourse.

But no one in College of Charleston maroon worried when Taylor Clarke shivered through a shaky first inning against No. 13 South Carolina.

Three walks?

Those 14 balls in 16 pitches?

No big deal.

“Oh, not at all,” third baseman Carl Wise said. “Complete confidence.”

Clarke, facing one of America’s best teams to start a season in which the NCAA has introduced new batter-friendly baseballs, picked up where he left off.

On a cold day in Columbia, Clarke gave up only two hits over six innings of a 6-3 victory over the Gamecocks.

In sweltering Lubbock last June, he went the distance in a 1-0 loss to Texas Tech in Game 1 of an NCAA Tournament Super Regional.

“I was really amped up going into the game,” Clarke said of his Friday performance. “I really had to harness it a little bit.”

First impressions say this College of Charleston team has what it takes to get back to the NCAA Tournament, and win more postseason games.

Nine innings is a small sample size; South Carolina easily could sweep a doubleheader Saturday and take the series. But the Cougars have the 1-2 pitching punch of Clarke and Bailey Ober, bullpen depth and an enhanced version of the patient hitting approach that worked so often last year.

A 14-hit game with eight of them against South Carolina ace Jack Wynkoop is indicative of good days at the plate to come. Wise said the key was an impromptu team meeting held in front of the dugout after Wynkoop went through the College of Charleston order the first time.

“He was throwing a bunch of change-ups,” said Wise, who drove in two runs with a sacrifice fly and a single. “We were thinking up-the-middle the other way, drive them to the opposite field. It worked for us.”

But the new flatter-seamed baseball — a minor league version introduced by the NCAA in a desperate effort to boost scoring — didn’t make for an immediate offensive explosion.

The Cougars didn’t have an extra-base hit.

Neither did South Carolina; four singles.

Blame the cold weather. Credit Clarke, a junior who transferred to the College of Charleston from Towson when the school considered dropping baseball.

His 88 pitches in Columbia started blossoming into a masterpiece when the first inning ended in a double-play.

“I’d say by the third I was able to calm down a little bit,” Clarke said. “I kind of got the preseason jitters out of the way.”

Clarke, a 6-2 right-hander, struggled with his slider all day. But he kept the Gamecocks at bay with a ferocious fastball, change-up mix.

“He just kept pounding the zone with fastballs, and I felt like maybe we weren’t ready for it,” South Carolina first baseman Kyle Martin said. “We weren’t aggressive enough. But that’s going to start changing. It’s going to have to.”

College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee isn’t satisfied, either. He thought his team left some opportunities on the bases, and wanted some of those aggressive swings Martin was talking about.

But he wasn’t complaining. Lee knows the approach Friday looked better than the body of work put forth by the Cougars as they were on their way to a Colonial Athletic Association championship last season while finishing second-to-last in the league in hitting.

“We had like 20-plus quality at-bats,” Lee said. “That’s a big deal for our offense. And we had a big inning. Any time we can score three runs in an inning, our chances of winning the game go up significantly.”

Particularly when Taylor Clarke is on the mound.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff