By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
All it takes is one mistake to start a fire. For Clemson on Sunday that mistake came when second baseman Steve Wilkerson dropped a ball hit to him by South Carolina’s Graham Saiko in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The error sparked the USC offense and started a fire that starter Scott Firth could not put out until the seventh-ranked Gamecocks sent eight more batters to the plate and scored five runs. When it was all said and done, the five-run six did the Tigers in during an 8-0 loss at Carolina Stadium.
“It is tough to beat a good team when you give them extra outs,” Firth said.
Clemson (6-4) was in position to prevent the Gamecocks from scoring any more runs as Firth pitched himself to two outs. With Saiko at second, Leggett decided to intentionally walk LB Dantzler, who leads the Gamecocks in both hitting, RBIs and home runs, to put runners on first and second.
Trailing just 1-0 at the time, it seemed like a good strategy considering shortstop Joey Pankake was following and he was 1-for-11 against the Tigers this weekend to that point.
“It’s my job as a pitcher to kind of go out there and work through whatever may happen out there whether it’s an error, a bad call or whatever it is. There cannot be any excuses,” Firth said. “It’s my job to get us out of that inning giving up as few runs as possible, but unfortunately, I could not shut it down really today.”
Following a wild pitch that moved Saiko to third, Pankake singled through the hole between second and third base to score Saiko. Erick Payne, Grayson Greiner and Connor Bright then followed with consecutive hits, blowing the game wide open.
“We opened the door a little bit for them in the sixth inning and they got some big hits when they had to,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett said.
Firth (2-1) ended his day after the sixth. He was charged with giving up just one earned run off eight hits. He had three strikeouts and one walk. The earned run came in the bottom of the fourth when Chase Vergason hit a solo shot to right field to lead off the inning.
“We have been pitching pretty well,” Leggett said. “I thought our starting pitching was pretty good this weekend. We opened the door a little bit defensively on Friday night and did the same thing in a couple of occasions here today.”
While USC’s bats warmed up thanks to Wilkerson’s mistake, the Tigers went cold after recording 11 hits on South Carolina pitching in Saturday’s win in Greenville.
“Offensively we had a good day yesterday but not so good on Friday and Sunday,” Leggett said. “You have to give them credit, they pitched well. They have a nice pitching staff, they have some relief pitching.
“They are on their way to have another good season, and we are too.”
Clemson could get nothing going against starter Nolan Belcher, though. The lefty dominated the Tigers, holding them to three hits, while striking out seven batters with no walks allowed in a complete-game shutout.
“Belcher did a good job,” Leggett said. “He changed speed. He spotted his fastball when he had too, and he battled. I thought in the first inning or two we hit too many fly balls and he got us off balance a little bit.”
South Carolina has now won 10 of the last 13 meetings against Clemson, and has won the regular-season series three straight years.
Despite losing two of three to the Gamecocks this year, Leggett says he still feels good about his team as they get set to jump into the ACC part of their schedule next week.
“I feel good about my team,” he said. “I feel good about how we played yesterday and I have seen flashes about what we got. We have some good young players and we have some good players on our team.
“Our starting pitching was good this weekend and that is how we have to compete in this conference. We have been playing good defense and we are capable of playing pretty good defense. I’m fine where our team is at. I would have loved to have won today, but it didn’t happen and now it is on to the rest of the schedule.”