“New confidence” for Wilkerson, Clemson after smoking Saint Louis 10-2 Saturday

1sD6xk.St.138BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner

COLUMBIA – At the plate, Clemson’s hitters are expected to be patient. The power’s just a bonus.

Too proud to go home winless for the second postseason weekend in a row, the Tigers rode the rare long ball to boot Saint Louis 10-2 Saturday afternoon, snapping a six-game losing streak before an announced attendance of 5,485 fans at Carolina Stadium in the NCAA Columbia Regional losers’ bracket.

Junior second baseman Steve Wilkerson flipped from reeling to raking, driving in a career-high five runs with a couple of balls well over the wall in consecutive frames. He was the unlikely hero, unfazed by a 2-for-26 slump over six games before squaring his home run total to four this season in the third and fourth innings Saturday.

In his second shot after striking out in the first inning, Wilkerson trotted out of the box upon popping a long 2-run shot to right, bouncing off the concourse pavement and into a parking lot across the street – a slam that would’ve escaped many major-league ballparks.

“It’s always big to break the ice, get that first run across the plate,” Wilkerson said. “It creates energy in the dugout and gets everybody going. It kept building on each other, and we started swinging the rest of the day.”

Junior third baseman Shane Kennedy backed up Wilkerson with his fifth home run in the third, the first time this season Clemson went deep twice in one inning and the club’s first 3-homer day all year. The Tigers (40-21) had rounded the bases just 19 times this year entering Saturday, ranking 9th in the league.

Before the pair of home runs, Clemson had spent 25 consecutive innings tied or trailing dating back to game two of the ACC Tournament, when North Carolina stormed back in the ninth inning to shock the Tigers.

“When we swing the bats, we’re pretty good,” said head coach Jack Leggett, who clinched his 16th 40-win season in 20 years guiding Clemson. “And the game’s a lot more fun.”

The fourth inning blew the game open, and the catalyst was Tyler Slaton, Clemson’s No. 9 hitter working an 8-pitch walk two batters before Wilkerson socked a 3-run, 2-out blast to chase Saint Louis starter Nick Bates (8-4).

When Liberty’s Josh Richardson never threw more than 16 pitches in an inning Friday, and no more than 13 after the first frame, senior outfielder Thomas Brittle scolded the Tigers afterward for an overly-aggressive approach.

Different story Saturday. As a point of reference, Richardson threw 104 pitches in his complete game. Saint Louis needed 108 to get out of the first four.

“Seeing more pitches, it helps in a couple different ways,” Kennedy said. “It allows you to walk, but at the same time it gets the pitcher’s pitch count up. That’s a big thing, to be able to get that pitcher out of there, and to get into their bullpen is huge.”

After a long day for the Clemson bullpen Friday, staff ace Daniel Gossett (10-4) bore the brunt on the mound, laboring through 115 pitches but allowing just two runs in six innings of work.

“Goose had to give us a good outing, and he had to give us some innings,” Leggett said. “We didn’t need to go to the bullpen early today. So to get six out of him was good – we were hoping for maybe another one, but it worked out well.”

The sophomore right-hander walked five, but stranded seven runners, good enough for Gossett to become Clemson’s first 10-game winner since Matt Henrie and Steve Reba each earned 13 victories in the 2002 season.

Kennedy went 3-for-5, his second such output in four games. Tigers cleanup hitter Garrett Boulware, a week after being named all-ACC tournament catcher, is 0-for-7 in the regional.

Clemson poured it on with three insurance runs in the ninth, including an RBI single for freshman Kevin Bradley, who’s replacing regular first baseman Jon McGibbon (hamstring) this weekend.

The regional’s fourth seed, Saint Louis closed out at 41-21. Slugger Alex Kelly was 3-for-4, depositing his 12th home run and 61st RBI into the Clemson bullpen leading off the fifth.

While the Tigers turned a couple of double plays to escape rallies, the Billikens donated four unearned runs on three errors.

“You cannot give any team in a regional extra outs, much less Clemson. It’s gonna bite you,” Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson wasn’t upset with his own team’s effort, rather tipping his cap to the experienced opponent.

“I think we were ready to roll … but obviously they know what they’re doing,” Hendrickson said. “They bounced back like champions today.”

With their backs against the wall, the No. 2-seeded Tigers prolonged their season to Sunday at 1 p.m., when they’ll face Saturday night’s loser of rival South Carolina (40-18) and Liberty (35-27), which beat Clemson Friday, in another elimination game. The host Gamecocks and Flames tangle Saturday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.

“Win or go home – that’s as big as it gets. We’ve been playing good baseball for the last 30 games, and the last six games or so haven’t gone our way,” Wilkerson said. “Now we’re in a situation where we have to win – doesn’t matter who we play, we’ll just try to keep it rolling.”

Leggett said either freshman left-hander Matthew Crownover (7-2, 2.05 ERA), who missed the league tournament with arm soreness, or senior righty Scott Firth (6-5, 3.23) will start the Sunday matinee. Knowing the opponent could aid the decision.

If Clemson knocks off the USC-Liberty winner, it then must beat the last team standing Sunday night and Monday night, with no slip-ups.

“Your backs are up against the wall a little bit – we’ve been there before, we know how to handle those things,” Leggett said. “You can’t win four games in one day. We’ve got to build a tournament right now. It’s not the easiest way to do it, but to be honest with you, we haven’t done anything easy for a long, long time.”

Clemson hasn’t gone home from a regional without at least one victory in the Leggett era – not once since 1981, in fact. The Tigers weren’t about to start now.

“Today was a do-or-die game, and we didn’t just squeak across,” Gossett said. “It’s a new confidence.”

Full gamer: Liberty’s battery sends Clemson’s season to the brink

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner

COLUMBIA – The baseball team showing up with players’ and coaches’ heads shaved into Mohawks played the part – loose, relaxed, swinging for the fences free of fear.

The team that showed up with expectations to set up a Saturday night showdown with a chief rival played like all the pressure in the ball park was piped into its dugout.

Sure enough, the Flames cranked the heat on Clemson, which must flip a sudden six-game skid into a four-wins-in-three-days ride, or school’s out for summer.

Lifted by a motivated catcher’s big bat and starting pitcher’s blissful ignorance, Liberty blasted the Tigers 8-3 Friday afternoon to open the NCAA Columbia Regional in front of 5,604 fans – most of them wearing orange and purple, shaking their heads on the trail out of Carolina Stadium.

“They had an answer for everything we threw out there today, and we weren’t very sharp,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “The bottom line is we’ve got to have some tournament players step up and stir things up.”

All week, players and coaches from Clemson and South Carolina squirmed, constantly hearing they were preordained to face off for a regional baseball title again.

Imagine how Liberty and Saint Louis must have felt being told they had no chance – especially the Flames, making their first NCAA Division I regional appearance since 2000 (fourth in school history) and 1-6 in the tournament entering 2013.

“Could be one of the biggest wins in the history of Liberty baseball,” said Liberty coach Jim Toman, a South Carolina assistant under Ray Tanner from 1997-2007. “We don’t have anything to lose down here. We felt all along we don’t have any pressure on us. We’re not even supposed to be here.”

Flames fifth-year senior catcher Trey Wimmer, extremely familiar with the Tigers, derailed the dreamy Clemson-USC matchup – at least for now – with a scintillating six-RBI performance.

Wimmer was plenty motivated, hailing from Greenwood, S.C. situated halfway between Clemson and Columbia. The kid raised to root for the Tigers (and whose brother attends Clemson) went 1-2-3 in the RBI column in his first three at-bats, yielding a sacrifice fly, a 2-run double and a no-doubt 3-run homer to left to blow the game open.

“I got a lot of first-pitch fastballs, and swung on those,” Wimmer said. “I never had a dream to play for Clemson; I just wanted to play Division I baseball, but yeah, it would have been awesome; in high school, everybody wanted to play for Clemson or South Carolina. It was nice to get a win against a team you grew up liking.”

The six runs batted in are the most Clemson has allowed an individual this year. It’s not an easy feat; nobody on the Tigers’ current roster has ever driven in six runs in a Clemson uniform.

“The 3-run home run in the sixth kind of put a dagger in us,” Leggett said.

The guy aiming at Wimmer’s catching mitt wasn’t bad himself. Flames starter Josh Richardson (4-4) retired 17 consecutive Tigers in his third straight 8-inning outing and second career complete game, taming the Tigers (39-21) in an overall flat outing at the worst possible time.

“My personal thing is, I really don’t think that much. I’m not a huge thinker on the mound,” Richardson said. “The only thing I was thinking out there is, this game is taking forever.”

If Clemson’s staff of arms isn’t in disarray, it’s at least drained after using six different pitchers on a toasty afternoon. Starter Zack Erwin (5-2) took the quick hook after just 2 2/3 innings, locating the strike zone on 30 of 43 pitches but letting the Flames find their groove at the plate.

Leggett rolled the dice with Erwin, hoping to save his best starter for a winner’s bracket assignment during the weekend. He’ll take no chances in the Tigers’ first elimination game Saturday afternoon.

“We’ll probably go with (Daniel) Gossett tomorrow, and (then) just game by game,” Leggett said. “The bad pitches we made, they hit them with men on base, and that’s the simple story of the day.”

Outhit 13-6, the Tigers’ gloves also were off-target, committing a pair of errors.

“Just couldn’t make a big pitch (or) get a big hit, and we were very average defensively,” Leggett said. “In all three phases of the game, we weren’t all that good today – and they played well.”

Liberty’s bats went boom or bust – five extra-base hits, 11 strikeouts – and it paid off, landing in Saturday night’s assignment and safe from elimination until at least Sunday. The Flames (35-27) have won six straight, surging from its roll to the Big South championship.

Meanwhile, Clemson is forced to flip over from its six-game slide on the double. Unless it wins four games in three days – beginning Saturday at 2 p.m. against Friday night’s South Carolina-Saint Louis loser – the Tigers won’t survive to see a super regional.

“As of right now,” freshman right fielder Steven Duggar lamented, “we’re fighting for our season, and some guys’ careers.”

The top of Clemson’s lineup did the only damage. Duggar singled home senior center fielder Thomas Brittle twice in their first two times through the order.

There was a Liberty mound meeting after the first three batters Richardson faced, while the visiting bullpen was already active without even recording an out.

But Richardson, a converted reliever, zoned in starting with the third inning – following Duggar’s second RBI single to cut the Liberty lead to 3-2, he set down the next 17 Tigers in succession. Duggar’s single broke the streak to lead off the ninth inning, finishing 3-for-4 with a run and two RBIs.

From cleanup hitter Garrett Boulware down the lineup, the Tigers were 1-for-21.

“A lot of guys were anxious to get up there and start swinging, and weren’t letting the ball get there,” Brittle said. “We were hitting weak ground balls and making it easy for their defense to work.”

Junior first baseman Jon McGibbon has been ruled out for the weekend with a hamstring injury; freshman Kevin Bradley started in his place.