South Carolina and Clemson possess two of the best programs in college baseball, and the traditional powers are highly ranked again this season. The Gamecocks are No. 3 and the Tigers are No. 11 in the Baseball America poll as they play their annual three-game series this weekend.
Yet over the past seven seasons, USC has held a decided upper hand in the series – winning 20 of the past 28 meetings, including four matchups in the NCAA tournament that helped end Clemson’s seasons in 2010 and 2012.
And since the 2010 season, when the Gamecocks claimed the first of consecutive national championships, they have won 11 of 15 against their rivals. USC coach Chad Holbrook is hard-pressed to give a reason for the edge.
“It’s been nip-and-tuck a lot of those 15 games, and they could have gone either way,” Holbrook said. “We made a pitch here or a play there to help us win a close game. That’s what it comes down to in our sport. I don’t think we’ve been any more talented than they have.”
Holbrook also understands the pendulum could swing back at any moment, especially given the intensity of the rivalry and the caliber of the Clemson program. He appreciates, however, how well USC has played against the Tigers.
“When you beat a program like Clemson, you’ve accomplished something. They’re, obviously, good,” he said. “Some of the games we’ve played have been at the College World Series. Some have just been knock-down, drag-outs here. They’ve gotten the best of us from time to time. We’ve played well from time to time against them. It could go either way any time we step on the field.”
The players understand how ephemeral a run like this one can be given Clemson’s strength. Junior catcher Grayson Greiner compares the Tigers to the top SEC foes his team faces, and the Gamecocks prepare accordingly. They’re cognizant of their recent success against Clemson, which holds a 170-131-2 lead in the overall series.
“It’s a new year and it’s a clean slate, but, obviously, in the back of our minds, we know that in recent history, we’ve won a little bit more games than they have against us,” Greiner said. “But that’s nothing. It’s 2014, and both teams are top teams in the country. We have the utmost respect for those guys. They’re very, very talented, and we’re just going to come out here and try to play our best game (Friday) night.”
Clemson last won the regular-season series in 2010, including a big 19-6 win in the rubber game, but the Gamecocks got revenge in Omaha, where they defeated the Tigers twice to reach the championship series on the way to the title.
In 2012, four of the five games, which included a pair in the NCAA Columbia regional, were decided by one run. The players expect that kind of game every time they meet their rival.
“It’s kind of like just trading punches, and whoever comes out on top wins. It’s pretty close, usually,” USC junior third baseman Joey Pankake said.
The Gamecocks concede their ability to come out on top has given their confidence a boost. But sophomore left-hander Jack Wynkoop, who will start the Saturday game in Greenville, knows everything can change when the next game begins. It doesn’t hurt their mindset that the team enters this series unbeaten in seven games while riding a school-record streak of five consecutive shutouts.
“Everyone’s confident. Everybody’s feeling good about how we’ve done this far,” Wynkoop said. “Coach also has told us it’s not always going to go like this. Not everything is going to be perfect, and you have to learn to deal with adversity. If adversity comes this weekend, I think we’ll do a pretty good job of dealing with it.”
The Tigers have a six-game winning streak after a season-opening loss to Eastern Michigan. Their players are ready to take on the challenge of turning the series around.
“Both teams have a lot of talent, and it is going to be good competition to see how we stack up against teams like them this year,” Clemson catcher Garrett Boulware said. “We have been ready for this day to come so we could focus solely on South Carolina. Everyone looks forward to this series because there is a lot of hype around it and bragging rights that come with it.”
Holbrook has the same anticipation, and he’s certain the Gamecocks are going to have to earn it if they want to continue their success since 2007.
“It’s going to be who plays better. I don’t think one team is going to out-talent the other. It’s two even-matched teams, and it’s going to come down to execution,” he said. “That’s how it should be when South Carolina and Clemson lock horns.”