This year’s South Carolina-Clemson three-game traveling series didn’t have the drama of last year’s, which included two one-run games, one of which went to extra innings.
Entering this series, five of the last six USC-Clemson games had been decided by a run, dating to the third game of the 2011 traveling series. That includes both games in last year’s NCAA Regional, one of which required 12 innings.
But after winning 6-0 on Friday in Clemson and losing 6-3 on Saturday in Greenville, the Gamecocks again dispensed with any drama by winning 8-0 on Sunday in Columbia. This was the fourth year of the three-game traveling series, and USC has now won three of them.
Of course, these teams could play in the NCAA tournament, as they also did in 2002 and 2010, when they met in the College World Series. But if they don’t, USC will have another season series win over the Tigers, who did win the 2010 regular season series but lost twice in Omaha.
Clemson last won a season series over USC in 2006, three games to one. Since then, USC has won six series and the teams tied once, in 2009.
USC is now 20-8 against the Tigers since the start of the 2007 season, including 8-3 since the start of 2011. The Tigers have not defeated USC in back-to-back games since 2002, and have lost five straight games in Columbia dating to 2010 – the final game of that series.
Sunday’s game was also the largest margin of victory in the series since Clemson clinched the 2010 regular season series with a 19-6 win in Columbia.
The story of Sunday’s game was fifth-year senior Nolan Belcher, who threw his second career complete game and just the second by a USC pitcher since the start of last season. (Michael Roth had the lone complete game last year.) Belcher allowed just three hits, walked nobody and struck out seven.
“That was, in my opinion, equally impressive as what Jordan (Montgomery) did on Friday,” said catcher Grayson Greiner, of Montgomery’s gem (three hits, no runs, two walks and nine strikeouts over eight innings). “It was pretty special for me to be a part of it. He’s just one of those guys that’s able to spot three pitches down in the zone.”
Said Belcher, of why he was so good Sunday: “I think it was just getting in on them, working away and getting in late (in the count), and just mixing speeds. I don’t think I was as sharp necessarily today as last week, but I made some pitches when it counted and I got in (with inside pitches) a lot better today than I had all season.
“I’m throwing a lot more strikes than I have in the past, and I think that’s just being healthy again (after redshirting in 2011 because of Tommy John surgery) and working with (pitching) coach (Jerry) Meyers and being sharp in my mechanics and just being able to repeat my delivery. Throwing strike one has been the reason why I’ve been somewhat effective early on.”
Belcher ended the game with a strikeout, which was fitting because he now has 23 this season, to just one walk.
“About halfway through the eighth, coach Meyers just walked over and said, ‘We’ve got (Steve) Wilkerson leading off the inning,’” Belcher said. “So I knew they were going to give me a chance (to finish the game). After the game, they told me that last batter was going to be my last batter. I’m glad I got him.”
Said USC coach Chad Holbrook: “I know what he’s gone through. I know how hard he’s worked to get back. He’s worked his tail off. When he’s got that changeup going, he’s tough. He got away with a few mistakes that they just missed and they fouled back. He made an adjustment there and he started pitching at the knees a little bit more. It was just an impressive performance by him.”
Some other notes on Sunday’s game …
** Holbrook went with Connor Bright over TJ Costen in right field. Costen was hitting just .120. The move paid off, as Bright’s two-out double scored the final two runs of a five-run sixth inning that put USC up 6-0. Bright was 2 for 3. As a freshman last season, he appeared in just 32 of 69 games and hit .228 with nine runs batted-in. Holbrook wants to keep giving him chances.
“That was the second time I’ve ever played right (field) in my whole life,” Bright said. “He just stuck me out there and had confidence in me and I appreciate it. (On the double), I knew that (Clemson’s Scott Firth) was being aggressive and throwing a lot of strikes early in the count. I just looked for a fastball and turned on it inside. A win here was big. It sort of settles us in.”
Holbrook said USC is “still trying to find out who we are,” which means you probably will see him continue to tinker with the lineup like he did Sunday.
“(Bright) is not the most talented kid on the team, but he has a little bit of those intangibles that Chase Vergason has, Adrian Morales had,” Holbrook said. “He believes he’s pretty good and he’s confident. And he’s aggressive. I felt today that if we were going to lose the game I was going to go down with an aggressive bunch. That’s why I put Connor in there. I wanted an aggressive at-bat in there. I wanted an aggressive guy that was going to swing. He’s pretty good in the outfield, too. He loves to be out there when the game is on the line. There’s no moment too big for Connor Bright.”
Is Holbrook comfortable continuing to play Bright in right field despite his lack of experience there?
“I played him in right field against Clemson in the series-deciding game (on Sunday), so I’m comfortable putting him back out there,” he said. “I’m comfortable hitting him up in the lineup, too. (Bright hit seventh on Sunday.) Connor’s been very good. He’s probably deserved more opportunities than he’s gotten. I’m going to keep finding ways to get him in there and get him some at-bats. He could DH some. He could play second some, he could play third some, he could play left field some. That’s one of the reasons we recruited him. He’s a versatile kid who can play all over the field.”
** Holbrook liked how USC responded to Saturday’s loss, and to his directive that the Gamecocks needed to be more aggressive at the plate than they were Saturday.
“They were a little bit upset with themselves last night on the bus ride home and I was glad that they were,” Holbrook said. “I didn’t really have to say anything to them yesterday after the bus ride home. Sometimes, when you come to the stadium, you can tell if a team’s ready to go or not, just based on if they’re a little edgy or if they’re on the edge of their seat here at the pregame meal. Sometimes, as a coach you just get a feeling. After pregame meal today, I sat in my office and I said, ‘I think we’re ready to go today.’ And they were.
“We were aggressive. That’s what I wanted to see us (be) today, swing the bats a little bit more aggressively. I thought we were a little passive yesterday. A lot of that goes to (Clate) Schmidt (who started for Clemson on Saturday and performed very well), but we can get the bat off our shoulder, and we got it off our shoulder today. That was good to see.
“I thought they were a little upset with themselves yesterday. I’d have been very upset with my team if they weren’t ready to go today and they didn’t rise to the occasion. They had a chip on their shoulder today and that was good to see.”