Commentary: Gamecocks keep coming up big against Clemson

nwhite@thestate.comMarch 4, 2013 

South Carolina's Graham Saiko scores on a balk in the sixth inning during the game between the University of South Carolina and Clemson University at Carolina Stadium. South Carolina won 8-0.

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com

It’s safe to say that USC coach Chad Holbrook came away happy with the results of his team’s annual series with Clemson.

The Gamecocks won two-of-three – with the pair of victories coming on shutouts – to continue their recent supremacy in the rivalry. With 20 wins in 28 meetings over the last seven seasons, the Gamecocks have managed to win 71 percent of the time against a very good college baseball program.

There’s no simple explanation given the relative strengths of the two over a long period of time. Clemson has reached the NCAA tournament 24 of the last 25 seasons, with seven trips to the College World Series in that period, and USC has made it to the NCAA tournament 14 of the past 15 seasons, with six CWS trips in that stretch, including a pair of national championships.

Holbrook didn’t really want to address the topic except to say that his team seems to have a lot of good fortune against the Tigers. But it’s really more than that. The Gamecocks have made more clutch plays in big moments while displaying what can only be described as an infectious confidence against their rivals.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett didn’t want to make too much of it either. He doesn’t believe his players are pressing against the Gamecocks. He’s fine with the progress his young team is making, and Saturday’s 6-3 win bore him out.

But sandwiched around that Clemson victory were two dominating pitching performances by USC starters Jordan Montgomery and Nolan Belcher. Throw in Tyler Webb’s one inning in relief of Montgomery, and that two-game pitching line is 18 innings, six hits, no runs, two walks, and 19 strikeouts.

The Gamecocks also piled up 14 runs in those two wins, although 10 were unearned. But that speaks to USC’s consistency in all phases of the game when the two play – from great pitching to timely hitting to solid defense.

Sure, this current streak can also be viewed as an anomaly. The Tigers, for instance, won 22 of their 32 meetings with the Gamecocks between 1991 and 1999. Clemson’s program was stronger over those nine seasons, when the Tigers went to the postseason every year and the Gamecocks made it only three times.

So is South Carolina’s upper hand in the last handful of seasons indicative of something bigger? It’s hard to say. Both programs are filled with standout players and top-notch coaches, but you have to wonder at this point if there’s more of a confidence gap than a talent gap.

Clemson won two-of-three games in the 2010 regular-season series, including a 19-6 blowout clincher in Carolina Stadium. But the teams met again in Omaha, and the Gamecocks battled back through the losers’ bracket to beat the Tigers twice, the first win signaling the arrival of pitcher Michael Roth as a USC legend. Those games ended Clemson’s season and catapulted USC to its first national title.

Counting those two wins, the Gamecocks have defeated the Tigers 10 of the last 13 times, playing with that unique combination of intensity and looseness that Roth made his trademark. After Sunday’s win, Belcher, Grayson Greiner and Connor Bright all referenced the importance of not allowing the pressure of the rivalry to overwhelm them. Each spoke of playing “relaxed,” with Belcher pointing to USC’s dugout antics as a valuable component of team chemistry when faced with a game’s big moments.

Holbrook also pushed a button that worked by installing Bright in right field in place of slumping T.J. Costen. Bright stepped up with two hits, including a two-run double in a five-run sixth inning.

But Holbrook played Bright as much for his self-assured attitude than his ability on the field. Comparing Bright’s confident outlook and aggressive style to that of former third baseman Adrian Morales, Holbrook wanted a little fighting spirit in his lineup in the rubber match.

“He loves to be up there when the game’s on the line. He’s got that factor about him,” Holbrook said. “There’s no moment too big for Connor Bright.”

The same thing can be said these days about the Gamecocks when they meet their rivals. They just keep coming up big.

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