By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
COLUMBIA — It’s amazing what one hit can do for a player and for a team. But when Steve Wilkerson took Nick Bates’ 2-0 pitch over the fence in right field in the third inning Saturday, the Clemson team that won 39 games this season suddenly reappeared.
It had been missing for six games.
“It’s always big to break the ice and get that first run across the plate,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson’s home run gave the Tigers their first lead in 25 innings and the confidence they needed to advance in the elimination game of the Columbia Regional at Carolina Stadium. Wilkerson later hit another home run – a three-run bomb to right also – as Clemson rolled to a 10-2 victory over Saint Louis.
Clemson ended a six-game losing streak with the win.
“It creates energy in the dugout and kind of gets everybody going and into it,” Wilkerson said. “I think after we scored that first run, it kind of passed it to the next guy and made things positive. We just kind of building on each other and started swinging if for the rest of the day.”
Shane Kennedy also got into the act as he hit a solo home run in the top of the third inning to left field. It marked the first time all year the Tigers (40-21) had two home runs in the same inning. Clemson entered the game with 19 home runs for the season.
“When we swing the bats, we are pretty good and the game is a lot more fun,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett said.
The Tigers were not having much fun at first. Trailing 1-0 after two innings, Clemson needed a pick me up. In the top of the second, it loaded the bases with no outs, but failed to get any runs. So when Thomas Brittle got on base to lead off the third inning, no one really knew what to expect. But then Wilkerson got a fastball low and sent it out of the ball park.
Three batters later, Kennedy sent a pitch on a full-count to left field for a 3-1 lead.
Wilkerson padded the lead in the top of the fourth inning when he jacked another Bates’ fastball over the right field fence to score Kevin Bradley and Tyler Slaton for a 6-1 advantage. Wilkerson finished the day with a season-high five RBIs—the second most by a Clemson player in an NCAA Tournament game. Not a bad day considering he was 2 for his previous 25 coming into the elimination game.
“I have not been swinging it well the last couple of weeks,” Wilkerson said. “Baseball is a funny game and one little thing can click for you. Today a little mechanical thing clicked for me and I tried to implement that into the game and it did well for me.”
Though it was not his most efficient game, starter Daniel Gossett picked up the win on the mound, allowing two runs on five hits in six innings of work. He only had two strikeouts and walked five batters, but four times he was able to get out of jams without much harm darn, giving up one run in the bottom of the first on a sacrifice fly and then a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth inning.
“It was not exceptional with his command and did not have his best stuff, but he battled through it for us,” Leggett said. “His pitch command got up there, but Kyle Schnell came in and pitched well for us. I thought our pitching was really good today and I thought we played good defense.”
Saint Louis (41-21) was 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and 0-for-5 against Gossett. The Tigers turned two double plays to end threats in the fifth and the seventh innings.
Clemson padded its lead to 7-2 in the top of the eighth inning when a routine fly ball to left field was dropped by Michael Bozarth with two outs. Clemson’s Maleeke Gibson, pinch running for Joe Costigan, scored on the play.
The Tigers had two, two-out hits to keep that inning going by Costigan and Kevin Bradley.
“We are going to play off the positive and take confidence from today,” Kennedy said. “We pitched well and hit well today, and the biggest thing is to take that confidence and go into tomorrow and continue to do that.”
Clemson will not wait for the loser of the South Carolina-Liberty game which is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. The elimination game will begin at 1 p.m.