For the fourth consecutive year, Clemson and South Carolina will play a three-game weekend series, beginning tonight, in what has become one of the college baseball’s most anticipated early season matchups.
Last season was another banner year for the series, just like 2002 and 2010, when the rivals met in the College World Series and the Gamecocks went 2-0 against the Tigers both times. In 2012, the Gamecocks hosted Clemson in the NCAA tournament Regional, and again went 2-0.
They were two thrilling games – 5-4 in 12 innings and 4-3 – just as the teams’ three-game regular season series glistened with a 3-2 11-inning win for USC in Charleston and a 6-5 victory for the Tigers in Clemson.
Clemson hasn’t won a season series against USC since 2006, when the Tigers took three of four. They did beat USC 2-1 in the 2010 regular season series, but the Gamecocks won the season series 3-2 after sweeping in Omaha.
Since Clemson’s last season series win over USC, the Gamecocks are 19-6 against the Tigers. Before that, in his first 10 years at USC, coach Ray Tanner went 16-19.
As Chad Holbrook replaces Tanner, here are three important things to watch this weekend for both teams …
CLEMSON The old hand
South Carolina will remember today’s Clemson starting pitcher, Daniel Gossett. In the Columbia NCAA Regional on June 2, Gossett left with the lead against the Gamecocks, allowing two runs and four hits while striking out eight over seven innings.
USC will meet an even better pitcher today. Gossett retains excellent command of an 89-92 mph fastball, and a bat-missing slider, but he has added a changeup, a third effective pitch, which had helped him against left-handed batters. Just a sophomore, on a young Clemson team he’s become a leader and rotation anchor.
The fresh face
Clemson’s freshman class earned rave reviews during fall workouts and the group is making an impact early in the season. Tyler Krieger is entrenched at shortstop and there are a number of quality freshman arms in the class, including hard-throwing righty Clate Schmidt, who will start Saturday, and intriguing lefties in Zack Erwin and Matthew Crownover, who can touch 94 mph.
But of all the freshmen, Steven Duggar is most ready to impact. Duggar has the potential to become a five-tool player. He has a smooth left-handed swing that produces line drives to all fields. He’s batting .320, second-best on the roster.
While he’s playing the corner-outfield spots because of Thomas Brittle’s presence in center, he has 6.64-second speed in the 60-yard dash and a strong throwing arm. He threw out two Wright State runners at home last Sunday.
The tipping point
If Clemson is to reverse its recent misfortune against South Carolina this weekend, it will start with defense. In this dead-ball, dead-bat era in college baseball, Clemson has tightened its focus on pitching and defense.
Clemson is no longer like its mid-1990s self, when sluggers Khalil Greene and Jeff Baker were launching 20-plus home runs per season. Clemson is more focused on preventing runs.
The Tiger outfield contains three players capable of playing center – Brittle, Duggar and Maleeke Gibson – and its infield has three players capable of playing short – Krieger, Steve Wilkerson and Jay Baum.
It could be Jack Leggett’s best defensive team in some time.
“(The defense) has been pretty close to outstanding,” Leggett said. “It’s been spectacular defense.”
SOUTH CAROLINA The old hand
Senior first baseman LB Dantzler is in just his second season at USC, after transferring from junior college, but he’s already had a major impact on the USC-Clemson rivalry. In the teams’ first Regional game last year, his single in the 12th inning and scored the winning run.
Dantzler got off to a slow start last season, after shining in the preseason. He sputtered this year in the preseason, but has started better than he did in 2012. Through seven games, he is hitting 13 of 24 with three home runs and 13 runs batted-in – six more than anybody else on the team. He said he is doing a better job this year of hitting the ball to all fields, rather than just pulling it.
The fresh face
USC’s No. 2 RBI man is freshman second baseman Max Schrock, who Holbrook has raved about. Schrock said he battled nerves in the season opening series against Liberty, in which was 1 for 11 with three RBI in three games. In four games since, he is 6 for 17 with four RBI.
Again this weekend, he will have to manage the stress of playing in front of a large crowd, but he is already showing the prodigious potential Holbrook sees in him.
“I settled in, and I’m feeling good now,” Schrock said. “When my swing is relaxed, it feels a lot better. It’s a lot quicker.
The tipping point
USC’s starters – Jordan Montgomery, Colby Holmes and Nolan Belcher – have all performed well so far. They have a combined 2.31 ERA, 33 strikeouts and nine walks in two starts apiece. Closer Tyler Webb has allowed two hits and zero runs in 3 2/3 innings over four appearances. He already has three saves.
But middle relief is more uncertain for the Gamecocks. In their last game, a win Tuesday over Furman, they got solid showings from freshman lefty Jack Wynkoop and sophomore righty Evan Beal. Both figure to have significant middle relief roles. But sophomore righty Joel Seddon allowed three hits and two runs and didn’t record an out in a middle relief appearance Tuesday.