The ‘define’ fine line for USC, Clemson

Clemson's Tyler Krieger clenches his fist advancing to third during an NCAA college baseball game against South Carolina at Carolina Stadium in Columbia, S.C., on Monday, March 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

COLUMBIA — A rare species of smile was spotted late Monday at Carolina Stadium. Some considered the joyous display extinct.

But there they were, a few dozen Clemson baseball players genuinely happy at the conclusion of a three-game, back-and-forth baseball series against No. 12 South Carolina.

“It’s exciting,” Clemson right fielder Steven Duggar said after the Tigers beat South Carolina, 7-0, to win the series. “But at the end of the day, it’s the expectation around here.”

It’s just that Clemson hadn’t won the regular season series against South Carolina since 2010, a season that ended with two losses to the archrival in Omaha, where the Gamecocks went on to win a College World Series championship.

Thus, another rarity: A South Carolina head coach fuming just after a Clemson series.

“I’ll get right back at it (Tuesday night against Charleston Southern),” Chad Holbrook said. “There’ll be some different guys in the lineup, I’m sure. I’ve got to figure something out.

“That’s not going to continue to happen. We were fearful. Timid. That’s not the way South Carolina is supposed to play.”

While losing to the Gamecocks the last few years, Clemson coach Jack Leggett insisted the series wouldn’t “define” his team. It was hard to shake the association.

Now it’s up to Holbrook to make sure the lack of production against Clemson isn’t haunting, and up to the Tigers to parlay this success into something good.

South Carolina managed only eight runs in the series, and made four errors Monday.

Max Schrock, the most talented hitter on the team, is batting .161. Cleanup hitter Kyle Martin went 0 for 4 Monday. Freshman slugger Alex Destino, also 0 for 4, went down twice on called third strikes. “I’ve got good hitters in our dugout,” Holbrook said. “I’ve just got to figure out which ones to put in there.”

Brody Koerner, the artful Clemson pitcher, had a lot to do with USC’s struggles.

But zero runs? Hadn’t happened to the Gamecocks in Columbia since 1998.

“We can’t dwell on this one,” Schrock said. “If we dwell on this one, it will snowball.”

South Carolina has plenty of SEC weekends to put Clemson in the rearview.

If the Gamecocks underachieve in the postseason, however, the connection will come up in offseason “defined” conversation.

Coincidentally or directly, the South Carolina series absolutely defined Clemson baseball from 2010-2014 as the Tigers did a little worse each postseason after reaching the College World Series in 2010.

Clemson’s performance vs. USC endured as emphatic definition of the 2010 and 2012 seasons, both of which ended with postseason losses to the Gamecocks (two in the 2012 Columbia Regional).

The Tigers weren’t ultimately eliminated by South Carolina in 2011, but lost the series, 2-1, and lost to Liberty twice in the Columbia Regional without getting a shot at the host team.

And then the South Carolina series sweep in 2014, three months before Clemson squeezed into the NCAA tournament and lost a first-round game to Oregon, 18-1, during a short stay at the Nashville Regional.

Leggett, former University of Maine punt returner, defined Clemson on Monday with one of his favorite words: Gritty.

“We’re tough,” he said. “I’ve always believed in these guys. I’ve always believed in this program and what these guys have put into it. They believe in it and we’ve been working extremely hard. (Monday’s win) was a culmination of a lot of hard work. So we have to keep working like we did, stay focused and take the confidence we got out of this and just keep building on it.”

The rival players and coaches shook hands Monday and went their separate ways. Duggar talked about how the Tigers “played Clemson baseball” and Holbrook pondered a shakeup, both hoping to look back and define the series on their own terms.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.