GREENVILLE, S.C.—When it was over, coaches for both sides tried to downplay the ninth-inning skirmish—as they should have. Clemson coach Jack Leggett and South Carolina coach Chad Holbrook are genuine when they express their deep respect for one another’s programs, and their jobs require them to keep their teams as even-keeled as possible, and to avoid stirring the pot in the media.
But really, flaring tempers make the South Carolina-Clemson series even more fun. In 2011, when Leggett asked umpires to check Jackie Bradley’s bat (drawing Ray Tanner’s ire) and a war of words broke out between players over Twitter, this rivalry ratcheted up another notch. And Saturday at Fluor Field, tension in the ninth inning added spice to South Carolina’s 10-2 victory.
The game was competitive until the ninth, when Clemson imploded, issuing five walks and committing two errors to help the Gamecocks tack on five more runs. The Tigers, who have made eight errors in the first two games of this series, might have let their frustrations get the better of them in that ninth inning.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Tanner English hit a routine chopper to second baseman Steve Wilkerson, who couldn’t handle it, allowing South Carolina’s final two runs to score. The second run scored when D.C. Arendas slid head-first into home plate, apparently avoiding catcher Chris Okey’s tag, as the umpire saw it. Okey immediately began to argue, and Leggett sprinted out from the dugout to join in—at which point Marcus Mooney broke from second to third. Leggett grabbed Okey’s chest protector and pointed at third base.
Okey turned and gunned down Mooney at third. After the play, while Mooney lay on his back, Clemson third baseman Jay Baum leaned down and pointed in Mooney’s face and said something, presumably in response to a hard slide.
Both dugouts erupted. The fans erupted.
South Carolina third base coach Sammy Esposito hollered at Baum as he turned his back and walked away. South Carolina’s Elliott Caldwell walked up from the on-deck circle and bumped Baum; the two of them exchanged words. There was more yelling and milling about. But there were no fisticuffs, and order was quickly restored. Here is video of how the whole episode unfolded.
“Both teams were playing hard, both teams were emotional,” Leggett said. “They both were probably 50-50 at fault. We’ve got a good relationship, and we’re going to play hard, they’re going to play hard. So there’s nothing going on there at all.”
“I mean, it’s Clemson-South Carolina. Emotions are going to get high from time to time,” Holbrook said. “Their team and their dugout did a great job of controlling their emotions. Our dugout and our kids did too. There’s some pretty strict NCAA rules in place about leaving your position, and I think both teams handled it very, very well.”
Holbrook is right. It would have been easy for an emotional incident to spiral out of control, but both sides ultimately restrained themselves.
For a few moments, though, it was chaos. A Fluor Field-record crowd of 7,182 showed up hoping for some fireworks, and they left with plenty to talk about.
The game itself had a few compelling moments as well. South Carolina took control with five runs in the third inning, highlighted by Mooney’s two-run single through the right side. The Gamecocks sent 10 batters to the plate in the frame and chased Clemson starter Matthew Crownover. Zack Erwin took over and ended the threat, then proceeded to keep the Gamecocks off the board for the next five innings, allowing the Tigers to chip away at the deficit.
South Carolina lefty Jack Wynkoop worked six strong innings for South Carolina, keeping the Tigers off balance with an excellent mid-70s changeup, which made his 83-87 mph fastball play up.
Clemson scored runs in the fourth and fifth but stranded men in scoring position in both innings. The Tigers had their best chance in the seventh, loading the bases with one out. But South Carolina righty Joel Seddon escaped the jam without allowing any runs by recording back-to-back strikeouts of Steven Duggar and Wilkerson.
Seddon finished the game with three scoreless innings, a day after he recorded the final three outs to preserve Friday’s win. Holbrook said he was confident Seddon could handle the extended relief outing because of his ability to command four quality pitches, making him an unusual bullpen weapon.
Entering the season, the biggest question facing the Gamecocks was who would replace Tyler Webb as closer? Seddon has provided the answer.
“As a coach, one of the most gratifying things for us is to see kids grow up,” Holbrook said. “When we recruited Joel, he was very, very talented, but he didn’t really put it together freshman and sophomore year. He had a great summer, came back and has been dynamite for us. He’s been throwing the ball extremely well—he’s awfully tough and composed and he’s a veteran who knows what’s going on. He’s got good stuff and he’s a tough nut, and that’s what you want in the back of your bullpen.”
The third-ranked Gamecocks are 9-0 on the young season, and they look like a very complete team. They have won 12 of their last 15 against Clemson dating back to the 2010 College World Series. But Holbrook pointed out that if Grayson Greiner hadn’t come up with a big swing of the bat with the bases loaded Friday, and if Clemson had gotten a big hit hit with the bases loaded Saturday, the Gamecocks might be heading into Sunday’s game trying to avoid a sweep.
“Honestly, Clemson’s a great baseball program. They’ve been great for a long period of time,” Holbrook said. “We have the utmost respect for them. It’s a pitch here, a pitch there, a foot here, a foot there, each and every time we play.”
Likewise, Leggett said he has seen plenty of things from his team that make him excited about its potential. He is not dwelling on South Carolina’s recent mastery over Clemson, which includes four straight regular-season series wins.
“You guys are the ones who get all excited about all that,” Leggett said. “How we play against them is very important for us, but at the same time, it’s not going to dictate how the rest of the season goes, one way or the other. I’m proud of our program. Our fans should be proud of our program. Those who know what’s going on know we play good baseball.
“They’ve had a better few innings here or there. It’s been close. We’ve just got to keep battling, keep on working.”