CWS Game 14: South Carolina 4, Clemson 3

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Evan Marzilli’s stolen base in the seventh inning could have been an inning-ending strike-him-out, throw-him-out double play thanks to Whit Merrifield’s apparent interference, but the call wasn’t made, and the Gamecocks broke a 2-2 tie two batters later on Christian Walker’s RBI single. The following hitter, Adrian Morales, added another RBI single to provide South Carolina’s final (and eventual winning) run.

South Carolina starter Sam Dyson was terrific on three days’ rest, allowing just two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings. He kept Clemson’s potent offense at bay for the second straight day, allowing the Gamecocks to win in the late innings. And he went toe-to-toe with Clemson ace lefty Casey Harman (6.1 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 5 K), who was pitching on four days’ rest.

Might Have Missed:
The crowd and atmosphere were very disappointing, considering it was a do-or-die CWS game between two arch-rivals with a trip to the Finals on the line. Perhaps the stifling heat played a role, but just 12,593 fans attended the nightcap, after the day’s first game drew just 10,907.

OMAHA—They say familiarity breeds contempt.

In the case of the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry, that certainly applies to the fan bases—that much was evident walking through the Rosenblatt Stadium concourse Saturday night, as fans in garnet exchanged less-than-cordial words with those in orange.

But the coaching staffs and players of the Tigers and Gamecocks seem to have nothing but respect for each other. That respect was only magnified after South Carolina’s hard-fought 4-3 win against Clemson on Saturday. It was Clemson’s second loss in two days against the Gamecocks, who battled through the losers’ bracket to reach the Finals in a replay of the 2002 College World Series.

But neither history nor hatred featured prominently in either team’s postgame remarks.

“You know,” said South Carolian coach Ray Tanner, “(these are) two teams that are extremely familiar with each other, and the numbers were almost identical: we left about the same number they did on base, had about the same number of hits. Guys competing all over the place, pitchers battling hard, making plays . . . It’s one of those games that’s very common when we play Clemson. And we’re very fortunate to be able to continue to play.”

In a striking contrast from the ugly scene in the concourse, Tanner and Clemson coach Jack Leggett spent several long moments behind home plate talking with each other after the postgame handshake on the field.

“We both, I think, have a lot of respect for each other and for each other’s programs,” Leggett said. “And every game we play, it’s a very tough game—top to bottom. And it’s well fought, well played. Both teams played hard . . . It’s always tough. Somebody’s going to walk away happy, somebody’s going to walk away disappointed.”

Saturday’s game was certainly well fought and well played. South Carolina (52-16) took a 1-0 lead in the first, and Clemson (45-25) tied it in the third. South Carolina took the lead again on Christian Walker’s solo homer in the fourth, and Clemson tied it again on a throwing error in the seventh.

But the bottom of the seventh proved decisive. With one out and Evan Marzilli on first base, Whit Merrifield struck out, then started to walk back across the plate. Marzilli, meanwhile, was running with the pitch, but catcher John Nester had to double-clutch his throw to second to avoid hitting Merrifield. It should have been ruled an inning-ending hitter’s interference; instead, Nester’s throw scooted into center field, allowing Marzilli to reach third base and prolong the inning.

“It was strike three, and he went across the plate. Anytime that happens, it makes it difficult for the catcher to make a clear throw to second,” Leggett said. “You don’t have to make any contact for it to be interference, but (the umpire) saw it differently than I saw it.”

The Tigers elected to intentionally walk Jackie Bradley Jr., and the next two batters made them pay. Walker delivered a tie-breaking single to center field, and Adrian Morales followed with an RBI single through the right side of the infield, providing South Carolina’s final run—and the eventual game winner.

For the second straight day, South Carolina’s outstanding pitching staff kept Clemson’s potent offense in check. After lefthanded specialist Michael Roth turned in a career performance in his first start of the season Friday, the Gamecocks brought back Roth’s polar opposite—hard-throwing righthander Sam Dyson—on three days’ rest Saturday.

Dyson was outstanding, holding the Tigers to two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings. He showed no ill effects from his 119-pitch outing in Tuesday’s win against Arizona State, blowing 94-95 mph fastballs past Clemson hitters repeatedly.

Nor did freshman closer Matt Price show any lingering effects from the 89 pitches he threw over his last two appearances, on Tuesday and Thursday. Price also had his usual 92-93 mph fastball velocity and his usual devastating power slider, and he allowed just one run on three hits and no walks while striking out three over the final 2 1/3 innings to pick up the win.

“I was impressed with what Sam and Matt did,” Tanner said. “Even if we had been less fortunate than to win tonight, what great performances, competitive efforts. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that . . . As I was sitting there watching, and (Dyson) was going out on three days’, and Matt had thrown a lot here, I didn’t see a dropoff (in their stuff). Those guys were competing and their stuff was good.”

After Price shut the door in the ninth, getting Jeff Schaus to ground out to first base for the final out with the tying run at first, South Carolina found itself in somewhat unfamiliar territory.

Suddenly, the Gamecocks were no longer a loss from elimination—the position they had been in since dropping their CWS opener against Oklahoma last Sunday. Instead, South Carolina gets a day to regroup before the best-of-three Finals, where it will face UCLA. Tanner said his team’s new reality struck him after the final out was recorded in the ninth.

“A couple of days ago (against Oklahoma), we were down to one strike, planning a trip back home,” Tanner said. “And now just a couple days later we’re going to have an opportunity to play for a national championship. That’s incredible.”