Weekend Preview: South Carolina, Clemson Get Together Again

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Rivalry weekend comes early in college baseball. Week Three—the first weekend in March—features two of the game's very best rivalries, a pair of nonconference, intrastate showdowns betwen teams ranked in the top 15. We'll get to Florida-Miami in a bit, but let's start with a look at Clemson-South Carolina, which has become far and away the most compelling rivalry college baseball has to offer.

Fans in the Palmetto State love baseball, and their passion for Clemson or South Carolina is intense, making tickets for these games tough to come by and the atmosphere electric. Both teams are annually ranked among the nation's elite, and their recent meetings have been dramatic for a variety of reasons, including showdowns in the 2010 and 2002 College World Series—all won by South Carolina.

The Gamecocks and Tigers will continue to play one game at each school's home ballpark with a third game at a neutral site, but this year the series opens in Charleston, rather than in Greenville, which had been the neutral site.

"I talked to a couple of my friends in Charleston, and they said, 'Hey, I'm not sure I can remember a buzz in Charleston like there is for Friday,' " South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said. "That's very special and good for college baseball."

Top 25 Series
(1) Florida at (12) Miami
(2) Stanford at Fresno State
(3) South Carolina vs. (15) Clemson
Michigan State at (6) Texas A&M
Harvard at (7) Arizona
Western Illinois at (8) Georgia
Southern California at (9) North Carolina
Rutgers at (10) Georgia Tech
Maine at (13) Florida State
Dartmouth at (14) Louisiana State
Miami (Ohio) at (16) Mississippi
Sacramento State at (17) UCLA
Long Beach State at (18) Oregon
Siena at (19) Central Florida
Utah Valley at (20) Cal State Fullerton
Oklahoma State at (22) Texas Christian
(23) Oklahoma at New Mexico
Pepperdine at (24) Louisville

Top 25 Tournaments
Houston College Classic:
(4) Arkansas, (5) Rice, (21) Texas, Houston, Tennessee, Texas Tech

Coca-Cola Classic, Surprise, Ariz.:
(11) Arizona State, Northern Illinois, Saint Louis, St. Mary's, Winthrop

QTI Baylor Classic, Waco, Texas:
(25) Baylor, UC Irvine, Lamar
South Carolina junior first baseman Christian Walker grew up in Pennsylvania, so he wasn't fully immersed in the rivalry until he showed up in Columbia in the fall of 2009. Just in the two and a half years since then, the complexion of the rivalry has changed.

"I definitely feel the intensity rising every year," Walker said. "Before I got here and before I played here, you kind of underestimate the rivalry a little bit. Then you get in a game and it's unbelievable. My freshman year they took the regular-season series from us, then we got them in Omaha, which kicked it up a couple notches."

Clemson junior righthander Dominic Leone remembers eating dinner at a restaurant in Omaha in June of 2010, watching the South Carolina-Oklahoma game on television. The Tigers were sitting pretty at 2-0 in their College World Series bracket, and the winner of the Gamecocks-Sooners game would have to beat them twice to advance to the Finals. The Gamecocks beat OU in 12 innings on Brady Thomas' walk-off RBI single.

"And I got a text a few minutes later that, 'Hey, you're starting against South Carolina tomorrow,' " Leone recalled. "As a freshman, starting against South Carolina on the biggest stage in the sport—it was pretty funny. Being a smaller guy from the Northeast, I was just kind of thrown into the fire of this rivalry that has been going on for years. I had to pinch myself and say, 'Treat this like any other game. Don't let the hype get to you.' "

The Gamecocks, of course, beat Leone and the Tigers in that game, then beat them again a day later en route to their first national title. Clemson and South Carolina had been at each other's throats for decades, but 2010 raised the stakes.

On the heels of that postseason engagement, tensions reached a fever pitch last year, when the two teams split the first two games of their annual nonconference weekend series, and Clemson coach Jack Leggett asked umpires to check the bat of South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. after he hit a home run in the second game, drawing the ire of South Carolina's players and fans.

A rainout Saturday was made up Tuesday, giving players on both sides more time to simmer. Clemson's Will Lamb referred to South Carolina lefty Tyler Webb as "soft" after Sunday's game, rubbing the Gamecocks the wrong way. South Carolina's players took to Twitter in force after the Gamecocks took Monday's rubber game.

Friday LHP Michael Roth
RHP Kevin Brady
  (1-0, 0.69)
(0-0, 0.90)
Saturday RHP Matt Price
LHP Dominic Leone
  (1-0, 1.80) (2-0, 3.27)
Sunday RHP Colby Holmes
  (2-0, 0.00) —-

"Obviously, we're playing Clemson, we're going to talk some trash on the field anyway—it's part of a rivalry game," South Carolina ace Michael Roth said last month. "When the bat was checked, obviously we were running our mouths pretty good, and coach Tanner kind of let us. We met on Monday after that game, we talked about the comments that Lamb made, talked about the bats getting checked. And coach Tanner, it pissed him off, and a lot of our guys were pissed too. That's the only time coach Tanner's given us free reign to chirp a little bit, and to get on Twitter too. Some of our guys lit Twitter up. That was fun, it was a good experience, and I think it was a great team chemistry experience too. When you go through something like that as a team, you build strong relationships, and you're having a lot of fun too. You're hash-tagging 'tigerblood' and stuff. I think it helped our team in the long run too."

South Carolina fans and Clemson fans are always going to treat each other with a certain disdain, but the back-and-forth between the players and coaches was uncharacteristic, even for this rivalry. At the collegiate level, coaches and players generally seem almost paranoid that they might say or do something that shows disrespect for another team. Sportsmanship and mutual respect are wonderful and admirable principles, of course, but there was something fun and even refreshing about seeing two teams let loose a little bit on each other.

But don't expect last year's fireworks to be reprised this time around.

"Last year it got a little chippy with a couple of things that happened, but that was very unusual for our rivalry," Tanner said. "That was the exception last year. (Clemson) Coach (Jack) Leggett and I talked it over last year, and neither one of us was pleased with what happened."

That backdrop is hard to ignore, but both sides say they are focused on baseball and trying to process the hype without letting it affect their preparation.

"Last year is last year," Leggett added. "It's in the past. I'm just looking at our guys this year and making sure they're ready to go. There's a lot of respect for both programs, and that's the way it should be."

South Carolina enters this weekend as the clear favorite, ranked No. 3 in the nation and led by several key veterans of back-to-back national championship teams, most notably Roth, Walker and righthander Matt Price. Those three All-Americans have performed just like All-Americans through two weeks: Walker leads the team in hitting (.381) and slugging (.524); Roth is 1-0 0.69 and left after seven no-hit innings last week against Elon; and Price has made a smooth transition from shut-down closer to dominant Saturday starter, going 1-0, 1.80 with 15 strikeouts, four walks and one hit allowed in 10 innings.

***image3***Roth and Price set the tone for the staff, but the entire staff has been stellar through seven games, allowing no more than two runs in any of them and posting a miniscule 0.86 team ERA. Pitching and defense were South Carolina's calling cards during its two national title runs, and this year's staff has a chance to be the best of the bunch. Sophomore righty Colby Holmes (2-0, 0.00) gives South Carolina a rock-solid No. 3 starter, while Webb and righties Ethan Carter and Forrest Koumas comprise the core of a deep bullpen.

"It's like I've been spoiled the last three years," Walker said of playing for a team with such dominant pitching. "I can't say enough about our staff.  They do an unbelievable job, from starters to relievers, closers, specialty guys. Even coach Tanner after the games, he keeps saying (to the hitters), eventually we're going to have to get their backs, make it so they don't have to hold the other team to one or two runs."

The Gamecocks are hitting just .274 as a team, but Tanner said the stats don't tell the whole story, because his team has produced an inordinate amount of hard outs. Tanner said he and hitting coach Chad Holbrook were cautiously optimistic heading into the season that his team had a chance to be more potent offensively than last year's team, which hit .294, despite its abundance of new faces. South Carolina has started as many as five freshmen at a time, and three of them—catcher Grayson Greiner, shortstop Joey Pankake and outfielder Tanner English—have started all seven games.

The Gamecocks had to replace their entire middle of the diamond, and how the freshmen perform at the critical positions of catcher and shortstop will go a long way toward determining whether or not South Carolina can pull off a three-peat. The early returns have been good, and South Carolina is fielding at a stellar .985 clip. Tanner said the coaches challenged Pankake aggressively in the fall to make sure he'd be able to handle the everyday shortstop role, and after struggling early in the fall, he gradually began to get comfortable.

"They've done a good job to this point. They get a little more comfortable every day," Tanner said of his freshmen. "They're good players, but sometimes good players don't necessarily play up to their capability. These guys are getting pretty close to doing that, but it's a challenge . . . We started five freshmen (Tuesday), which is unusual for me—I've never done that in my entire career. We still have some veteran guys, but we have some newcomers."

Clemson, too, is teeming with fresh faces in the lineup but boasts a talented and experienced pitching staff, so runs could be hard to come by this weekend. Tigers ace Kevin Brady has shown front-line stuff when he's been healthy over the last two years, and he's been healthy and effective so far this year. Leone has continued to fine-tune his command of his quality four-pitch repertoire and his mound presence, making him a reliable Saturday starter.

"I feel like I've matured into a very calm and emotionally controlled pitcher," Leone said. "I feel like I've come out stronger this year than I had my freshman and sophomore years."

The Tigers haven't settled on a No. 3 starter yet, although last week they used veteran David Haselden in that role, and they could do so again this week unless they win up turning to Haselden in relief to win one of the first two games. The bullpen is well stocked with quality arms, led by junior righty Scott Firth (2.08), versatile sophomore righty Kevin Pohle (2-0, 0.00), and hard-throwing freshman righty Daniel Gossett (0.00).

Clemson's lineup, like South Carolina's, is still finding its way, and the Tigers might be without first-team preseason All-American Richie Shaffer this weekend because of a groin injury. Leggett said Tuesday that Shaffer was "probably 50/50, maybe a little less than that." If he can't play, the Tigers will play promising freshman Jay Baum at the hot corner. Baum has a bright future, but Shaffer is the centerpiece of the lineup (though he's gotten great support from senior DH/catcher Phil Pohl, who is hitting a team-best .476), and his shoes won't be easy to fill.

Shaffer has also adjusted well to his shift across the diamond from first base to third, and senior Jason Stolz has been a defensive dynamo at shortstop, where he took over for departed ACC player of the year Brad Miller. The second base job was wide open for a while, but sophomore Steve Wilkerson (7-for-14 in three games) has seized it, giving the middle of the diamond added stability.

"I look for him to be our guy there right now," Leggett said. "He had a really good game for us on Sunday. He's a great offensive player and an emotional player for us, so we hope he can establish himself there."

Newcomers Thomas Brittle and Brad Felder bring athleticism to the outfield, giving the lineup a nice balance of speed and power. And Spencer Kieboom gives Clemson an experienced, defensively strong catcher with some pop at the plate. So while Clemson is a slight underdog this weekend, it has the look of a fairly complete, dangerous club that should be a significant factor in June, just as South Carolina surely will be.

"We're two really good teams down in this region," Leone said, "and I think both teams, we're just ready to go out and play some baseball."

Another Rivalry Renewed—Yet Again

Like in the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry, the Southeastern Conference team has had the upper hand lately in the Florida-Miami feud. The Gators have ended the Hurricanes' season three years in a row, in the Gainesville Regional in 2009 and '11, and in the Gainesville Super Regional in 2010.

Miami coach Jim Morris admits he is tired of seeing the Gators in the postseason every year, and he has a legitimate gripe. Miami and Florida also met in regionals for three straight years from 2001-'03 and in a super regional in 2004 (with Miami winning all four of those showdowns). So seven times in 11 years, Miami and Florida have been paired in regionals or super regionals. For the sake of comparison, Clemson and South Carolina have never met in a regional or super regional since the 64-team format began in 1999.

"We've played them a lot in the postseason, even in the last 18 years since I've been here," Morris said. "Last year, I think we barely missed (earning a national seed), from what I was told, yet they threw us in there at Florida as a No. 2 seed to save money. I don't think that's the way it should be done at this point, to save money."

But Morris also admits that the balance of power in the Sunshine State has shifted toward Gainesville in recent years.

***image2***"Florida's been better (than Miami), and this is probably the best club they've had in the last 20 years maybe, or best club ever," Morris said. "I don't have any problem making that statement. We have been down the last two or three years. Last year we finished 23 (in the postseason rankings), the worst finish since I've been here. We just haven't been as good. I think this year we got a couple of breaks getting (lefthander Eric) Erickson back and getting (catcher Peter) O'Brien. The last two or three years we haven't gotten any breaks; everybody signed. I know you make your own luck, but sometimes you need some breaks, too."

Erickson and O'Brien are unquestionably two of the nation's most impactful additions. Indeed, how could any two recruits make more of a difference? Erickson, who missed all of 2009 and 2011 with separate Tommy John surgeries, has thrived once again as Miami's Friday starter, going 2-0, 0.00 with 16 strikeouts and no walks through his first 13 innings. Erickson entered the season with a 23-6 career record, and his mastery of the little things that come with experience is what makes him so valuable.

"I think he has been better than ever, and he was pretty darn good as a freshman," Morris said, referencing Erickson's 10-4, 2.50 campaign in 2007. "He just hits his spots, stays ahead of hitters, doesn't walk guys. He challenges guys, he can throw every pitch over the plate for a strike in any count. He doesn't beat himself, he does a good job holding runners, fields his position well. And he may have a little more velocity now than he did, because he's been in the upper 80s."

And O'Brien, a senior transfer from Bethune-Cookman who won an appeal for his eligibility in the weeks leading up to opening day, is Miami's starting catcher and most fearsome hitter, starting the season .500/.568/.933 with three homers and 10 RBIs through 30 at-bats.

"O'Brien's hit it hard, too," Morris said. "He's hitting .500, and it's a hard .500."

O'Brien's done a fine job handling Miami's pitching staff, but the rest of the defense up the middle has yet to settle in. That's largely because junior shortstop Stephen Perez has been hampered by a lingering elbow injury, so the Hurricanes are trying to ease the strain on his arm by playing him at second base, while normal second baseman Michael Broad plays short. The 'Canes made nine errors in their three-game sweep of Albany last weekend.

"We haven't had a consistent defensive lineup because of (Perez's injury)," Morris said. "He's got the best instincts on our team. I just want to make sure he's OK in May and June. I'm not going to take a chance at this point."

Miami's pitching is its biggest strength. Junior righty Eric Whaley and sophomore lefty Bryan Radziewski team with Erickson to form a strong weekend rotation, though Radziewski hasn't been as sharp as he was as a freshman. Lefthander Steven Ewing gives Miami a fourth proven, quality starter, and the bullpen has an overpowering anchor in flame-throwing righty E.J. Encinosa, who pitches at 94-95 and tops out at 98 with serious movement. Encinosa did not pitch last weekend because of a groin pull, but Morris says he will pitch this weekend.

Florida is dealing with its own injury issues. Most notably, Sunday starter Karsten Whitson (an unsigned first-round pick and a preseason All-American) left his start last week in the first inning with some early-season arm fatigue. The Gators say tests have confirmed there is nothing structurally wrong, and Whitson should be back sooner rather than later—but it doesn't sound like he will pitch this weekend.

"It just didn't look right—you could tell," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said of Whitson's last outing. "It wasn't 95, but it wasn't 85 either. I'd say he was probably touching 90-91. And there were some things during the week, his arm just felt dead, which pitchers to through during the year. There's no pain. His arm just didn't rebound great after Fullerton (two weeks ago), and I just didn't want to take any chances."

O'Sullivan said the Gators could start one of their two bullpen stalwarts—lefty Steven Rodriguez or righty Austin Maddox—on Sunday if they are not taxed in the first two games. Maddox has already been extended for four innings once this year, working efficiently and needing just 42 pitches. He was able to maintain the velocity on his heavy 92-95 mph fastball, and he bounced back with no ill effects.  Other options include righthanders Johnny Magliozzi and Jonathon Crawford.

Florida's other injuries appear to be minor: All-America catcher Mike Zunino and freshman second baseman Casey Turgeon both dealt with hamstring issues, but O'Sullivan said both are back to 100 percent. Turgeon is one of the few new faces in Florida's experienced lineup this year, and he has hit just as the Gators expected he would, getting off to a .360/.393/.560 start through eight games.

Another new face has been more of a surprise. Switch-hitting freshman catcher/first baseman Taylor Gushue, who graduated from high school in December and enrolled at Florida for the spring semester, has forced his way into the middle of an All-America-laden lineup from the outset of his career, hitting .304/.429/.609 in 23 at-bats.

"I didn't expect it," O'Sullivan said. "I knew he was going to be a good player, I knew his makeup was really good. But he came in here and hit well right away in practice. I kept thinking, 'Well, at some point he'll cool off a little bit.' He didn't cool off. Then the Sunday before the season, he hits a home run righthanded and a home run lefthanded in the same scrimmage. I said, 'He kind of earned it.' "

Gushue is Florida's catcher of the future—he has shown a knack for receiving and calling pitches early in his career, and his throws have been crisp—but he is more likely to get time at first base this year in deference to Zunino, and to ease the burden on two-way stars Maddox and Brian Johnson.

The addition of budding young stars such as Gushue and Turgeon to Florida's absurdly talented roster makes the Gators even more formidable, and Miami knows what it is up against this weekend. But Florida knows it will have a challenge on its hands, as well—just as it always does against Miami, no matter what the recent head-to-head records suggest.

"I don't expect anything different every time we play Miami," O'Sullivan said. "A lot of the games are close, too—it's a play here, a play there, and our players know that. I expect it to be a great weekend series. With Erickson, Whaley and Radziewski, those are as good of three weekend starters as you'll see in our league. This weekend will not be easy for us, and I think it will be a good barometer for us. It will tell us where we're at now."

Quick Takes

• The Houston College Classic is an annual fixture on my travel calendar because it offers the chance to see six quality teams in one stop. I'll be on hand at Minute Maid Park again this weekend to see another compelling field. The Rice-Texas showdown is a highlight of the Houston College Classic every other year when the Longhorns play in the event, and their Friday night showdown is certainly the feature attraction this weekend. It will be fascinating to see whether Augie Garrido has gotten the 'Horns to fully buy in to his team-first, control-the-controllables, focus-on-the-process message, or whether they continue to struggle on offense. Texas enters the game with a 3-5 record, having scored five or fewer runs in each of its first eight games, and two or fewer in five of them. Undefeated Rice, meanwhile, is playing with loads of confidence and has one of the nation's premier pitching staffs. Facing Austin Kubitza and Rice's vaunted bullpen is hardly the prescription to cure an ailing offense.

The other two Friday games also offer plenty of intrigue. The day's first game, Arkansas-Texas Tech, will showcase two of the quickest bats in college baseball in Hogs first baseman Dominic Ficociello (.417/.522/.611) and Red Raiders outfielder Barrett Barnes (.438/.550/.813, 3 HR, 12 RBI). Those two teams also enter the game a combined 17-1. For Texas Tech, which does have two quality wins against St. John's and one against Missouri State, this weekend offers a chance to make a splash on the national scene.

***image1***The Houston-Tennessee game features a fascinating pitching matchup between Houston fifth-year senior Jared Ray and Tennessee junior two-way talent Drew Steckenrider. Before shoulder surgery cost him all of 2010, Ray was considered a top-five-rounds prospect. He pitched just 25 innings last year, but he has re-emerged as the staff ace this spring, posting a 1.50 ERA in his first two starts. Steckenrider has shown premium arm strength since his high school days in Georgia, but he lacked feel for pitching and posted ERAs of 5.79 and 6.13 in his first two collegiate seasons, registering just 46 total innings. Now he fronts Tennessee's rotation, and he has also gotten off to a strong start, going 1-0, 1.29 through two starts. This weekend, I'll report on how he has progressed under first-year coach Dave Serrano, and whether Ray's stuff has come all the way back.

• The Houston College Classic is not the only tournament being held in a big league-caliber dome this weekend. Minnesota hosts its annual Dairy Queen Classic in the Metrodome, former home of the Twins. The Golden Gophers had some fun at the dome's expense in this entertaining promotional video for the Dairy Queen Classic, but rest assured Minnesota is thrilled to have the dome available again this year after its collapse largely spoiled its 2011 campaign. This year, Minnesota hosts fellow Big Ten member Nebraska, West Virginia and New Mexico State in the event; free audio and live video of the tournament is available.

Having the Metrodome usually means the Gophers don't have to worry about weather as much as other Northern schools, but Minnesota coach John Anderson clearly has the weather disadvantage of Big Ten schools on his mind this week. He told the Associated Press of his proposal for the conference to move its schedule later in the year, which essentially would remove the Big Ten from CWS consideration.

"There were four SEC teams in the College World Series last year. We're never going to catch those people," Anderson, a recent member of the NCAA's Division I baseball committee, told the AP. "The system works for them, and they're not going to want to change it. People are going to criticize this idea, but we need to get people talking about it."

The league also is mulling a proposal put forth by Purdue coach Doug Schreiber to lengthen the fall schedule to a 14-game schedule, reducing the need for expensive February road trips.

The Big Ten is the only Bowl Championship Series conference that hasn't had a team reach the College World Series in the last decade; even the Big East has had present member Louisville (2007) and Notre Dame (2002) earn trips to Omaha. The league has made past proposals to change the structure of the NCAA tournament, but none as radical as Anderson's, which essentially would secede the Big Ten from the rest of Division I baseball.

NCAA vice president for baseball and football operations Dennis Poppe didn't sound impressed by the ideas. He told the AP, "They can do what they want. Obviously they're diminishing their chance for selection into the (NCAA) tournament."

• A couple of West Coast teams will travel East this weekend for compelling nonconference sets. Red-hot Pepperdine, coming off series wins against Oklahoma and Fresno State, visits No. 24 Louisville in a rematch of an early-season series in Malibu last year. The Friday matchup between righthanders Jon Moscot and Justin Amlung is one of the day's better pitching matchups.

Pepperdine handed Southern California its first loss of the season on Tuesday, and the Trojans will try to rebound at No. 9 North Carolina. USC senior righthander Andrew Triggs and UNC sophomore lefty Kent Emmanuel will hook up in another of the day's best mound showdowns, featuring a pair of polished strike-throwers with advanced feel for pitching and intelligence.

• We asserted last summer and maintained throughout the fall and winter that Stony Brook will be one of the North's most dangerous teams. The Seawolves get a chance to make a major statement this weekend in a three-game series at East Carolina. Expect a strong Baseball America contingent on hand in Greenville to see first-team preseason All-American Travis Jankowski (off to a .400/.500/.667 start in four games) and company.

• Vanderbilt fans must be getting nervous after the Commodores dropped to 1-7 with a dispiriting 9-3 home loss to Louisiana Tech on Wednesday. The team's statistics are just as ugly: Vandy has a .225 team batting average and a 6.65 team ERA. The 'Dores will try to get back on track this weekend against Rhode Island, but the Rams are no pushovers: they enter the weekend 4-2, coming off nice wins against College of Charleston, Xavier and Connecticut at the Cougar Invitational last weekend. If the Commodores have another bad weekend—and that's certainly within the realm of possibility against a frisky URI team with plenty of experience in the pitching staff and the lineup—it might be time to reach for the panic button in Nashville. But it's not time yet; that Vanderbilt coaching staff is too seasoned to let this season spiral out of control because of two rough weeks. And the Commodores are just too talented. Tim Corbin will find a way to get the most out of that talent, soon enough.

• Baylor announced Wednesday night that it has reassigned long-time assistant coach Mitch Thompson, the 2006 Baseball America/ABCA Assistant Coach of the Year, to another position within the athletic department. Thompson—one of the college baseball's great gentlemen—has been head coach Steve Smith's assistant at Baylor since 1995, and his abrupt reassignment was a shock, especially considering the bizarre timing. What kind of effect will this in-season tumult have on the Bears, who are off to a fine 7-2 start? This weekend's QTI Classic in Waco could offer some clues, as Baylor faces dangerous UC Irvine twice and Lamar twice. Baylor's pitching staff has performed very well during its strong start, and Smith turned over the leadership of the staff to fourth-year volunteer assistant Trevor Mote this year. Mote, a former Baylor player who was an assistant at Yavapai (Ariz.) JC, has been promoted to full-time status for the remainder of the season.