The punch, ‘punch back’ set up Game 3

South Carolina catcher Hunter Taylor, left, chases Clemson batter Chris Okey for the tag out after a dropped third strike during an NCAA baseball game at Fluor Field in Greenville, S.C. on Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer) THE GREENVILLE NEWS OUT, SENECA NEWS OUT

As South Carolina’s Connor Bright smoked a pitch from Clemson’s Zack Ervin down the left-field line, almost all spectators on the third base side of Fluor Field went silent. Those were the ones bundled up in orange, purple and white.

But as Bright headed for his second-inning double, he heard roars from people packed along the first base side, most of them wearing garnet, black and white.

The emotion kept tilting right and garnet Saturday as South Carolina followed Bright’s lead with three runs in the decisive second inning. The Gamecocks’ 4-1 victory evened the three-game series, a simple response to Chad Holbrook’s postgame message Friday night.

“In this rivalry, the teams are so evenly matched, one team is going to punch and you have to punch back,” the South Carolina head coach told his team after the Tigers’ 11-4 victory at Clemson.

The real counter-punching begins Sunday in Columbia with Game 3 at high noon.

“It would mean a lot,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett, when asked about the chance to win the regular-season part of series for the first time since 2010. “We want to win every single game and we’ll be ready to play (Sunday). My biggest concern right now is just that we’re playing well and I feel good about our team.”

Fans share the passion within the best rivalry in college baseball. A crowd of 7,175 shivered and cheered Saturday. It was 41 degrees for the first pitch, but didn’t seem that warm in the grandstand shade.

Neutral site pregame festivities and crowded concession lines simply don’t annually exist elsewhere in the sport.

It’s a passion for baseball. It’s tradition.

And maybe beer.

“I was just ‘carded’ at the Carolina/Clemson baseball game,” tweeted South Carolina President Harris Pastides. “I was flattered … and then showed them my AARP card!”

The only thing missing was an ESPN baseball version of “GameDay” featuring Designated Imitation Lee Corso Guy donning a Gamecock or Tiger mascot head in the plaza next to Shoeless Joe Jackson’s restored house across the street from the ballpark.

But no matter what happens Sunday, both teams will come away with some good things from this series.

Clemson for the next three months can recall the Friday night success against Wil Crowe, one of America’s very best pitchers.

South Carolina got 13 strikeouts Saturday and a stellar start from Jack Wynkoop against what projects as a good hitting team. Of the Gamecocks’ eight runs, Bright (Wando High School) has knocked in four and scored two.

The Tigers might stop its rivalry slide Sunday; Clemson leads the overall series 171-135-2 but is 4-12 against South Carolina since the start of the 2011 season.

Or maybe the Gamecocks will continue to respond after a slow weekend start, as they did in winning a three-game series against the College of Charleston after dropping their first season opener since 1998.

This rivalry comes complete with fresh drama, gamesmanship and an “I told you so” glow. Two of Clemson’s three home runs Friday night barely cleared the fence at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, a reminder that baseball is a game of inches — or a few feet. And Leggett had something to do with that: no head coach was more in favor of the new, livelier baseballs introduced this season to add more offense to a game too short on home runs and drama.

The bad news for Sunday might be good news later; Clemson isn’t nearly at full strength. Key relievers Patrick Andrews, Jake Long and Clay Bates are injured and won’t be ready to pitch until later in the season.

Still, even while losing Saturday, Erwin and Paul Campbell combined for six strikeouts and no walks while giving up two doubles and five singles.

“We’ve got to get more consistent offensively,” Holbrook said, “if we want to be the team we want to be.”

Clemson players and coaches were thinking exactly the same thing.

One of the rivals will do enough to move a step closer Sunday.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff