Last night, the South Carolina Gamecocks edged the Clemson Tigers in front of a fanatical crowd at Joe Riley Stadium. One of the best games I've seen in person, it was a classic pitcher's duel. Michael Roth made batters look foolish, neutering their big-hitting lineup to the tune of 4 hits and one run over 7.1 IP. We couldn't get much going either (did Ray forget to warm the bats?), as Clemson starter Kevin Brady fanned 7 of his own in six innings. In fact, his numbers were identical to Roth's (both left having given up 4 H, 1 R, 7 K, 2 BB). Brady had to work harder than Roth, throwing 97 pitches in his six innings of work (Roth threw 102 in 7.1).
When Clemson tied it in the seventh, you got the feeling this wouldn't be over after nine. Indeed, free baseball was in the cards tonight. It wasn't until the 11th inning when the Cocks strung together a few baserunners, scoring two runs on three hits and a walk. Unlikely heroes abound: Sean Sullivan, already 0-4 with two strikeouts, roped a single to left, breaking the tie. Local boy Connor Bright (who I only just learned went to Wando High School, my alma mater) followed it that with what would prove to be a vital insurance run.
But of course, there's no kneeling it out or bleeding the clock in baseball. The Cocks had to shut down the Tigers in the bottom half of the frame, and some poor fielding left the door open. Clemson's stud 3B Richie Shaffer led off the interminable bottom of the 11th with a double, and would eventually come around to score on a fielding error by Joey Pankake. After an Ethan Carter strikeout, a chopper to third looked like the ballgame, but LB Dantzler zinged it past Christian Walker, leaving runners on first and third with two outs. Meanwhile, our mound was a revolving door, with four different pitchers throwing in the inning. With two outs, Nolan Belcher got the call to face pinch-hitter Jay Baum. With two strikes, Baum stroked one to the left-center gap. From my perspective, I thought it was game over for us. I thought that thing was going to hit the grass and roll to the wall, and both Clemson baserunners would score, cementing the 4-3 comeback win. But the Rhode Island Kid, Evan Marzilli, laid out for an unbelievable game-winning grab. What a way to end it--and man, did it feel good to walk out celebrating amongst the longfaced Clemson fans who'd, yet again, seen their hopes crushed at the hands of their rival. The Gamecocks won their 15th game in the last 21 tries against the Tigers, and will look to claim the series today in Columbia (if that happens, which I'm starting to doubt based on the forecast) or tomorrow in Clemson.
- Not to put a damper on such a wonderful win, but offensively we're a mess. Brady's a good pitcher, but some of our guys look downright lost at the plate. Grayson Greiner and Tanner English each struck out three times, Marzilli and Sullivan two. Greiner looked particularly bad and seemed to be hacking at everything. All in all, we struck out 13 times, although spread across only seven batters. We had no extra-base hits and no stolen bases. If our pitching staff was even better-than-average (as opposed to one of the best in the country), I wager we'd be 4-4 right now.
- Marzilli made up for a poor day at the plate with his defensive play, saving perhaps three runs (and almost four.) Aside from The Catch, Marzilli squelched a fifth-inning rally by gunning down a runner trying to score from second on a single. Marzilli almost duplicated the feat in the seventh, but Greiner couldn't handle the bounce. Runner would have been out by several feet. Poor Grayson--not a great night for our young catcher.
- Infield errors were an issue last night. In the fifth inning, Christian Walker winged it past Roth on what would have been a bang-bang 3-1 putout with the pitcher covering. Then in that stressful 11th, Joey Pankake booted a grounder, and LB Dantzler neglected to plant and throw on a chopper to third (perhaps he wouldn't have had time anyway) and missed Walker by a few feet to the left. Thankfully the tying run didn't come around to score.
- Again, pitching was our savior. Over the course of the 11 inning game, the staff combined for six hits, one earned run and 10 Ks. Forrest Koumas pitched 2.2 solid innings in relief, and our trio of hurlers who each went for 1/3 of the 11th inning were basically perfect. I only say basically because of poor Ethan Carter, who induced two ground balls that resulted in errors. He struck out the other batter he faced for the 2nd out of the inning.
- The home plate umpire was absurdly bad--this was confirmed by some Clemson buddies I caught up with after the game. Most egregious was his no-call on the pitch that grazed Christian Walker's helmet. The pitch was called a ball, but it definitely hit something. Walker actually took his base, and was called back. He pleaded with the umpire, showing the scuff mark on his helmet as evidence. After a brief ump conference, they called it a ball. Walker was displeased, as was Tanner.
- The fans were insane, especially ours. In fact, one of my Clemson buddies after the game said the intensity level was noticeably higher with Carolina fans. "You can tell they've won back to back championships," he said. Indeed. Clemson fans had to feel a bit silly when their 2012 intro video was played half-inning after ours.
- Joe Riley Park did a fine job of catering to both fanbases. They played recorded welcome videos from both Mayor Joe Riley and Charleston Riverdogs owner Mike Veeck. We heard both fight songs (although they played 2001 for us in lieu of "The Fighting Gamecocks Lead the Way".) Sandstorm and Zombie Nation both made appearances. Goofy mid-inning contests pitted USC fans against Clemson fans. The roving PA announcer--a fixture at the park--pandered to all, but at one point made the crucial mistake of saying, "I see a lot of MAROON AND BLACK out there!" He was swiftly corrected. "Garnet, OK, Garnet!" Get it right!
That's a wrap, folks. Cocks move to 8-0 and will continue the series whenever it's not storming balls in Columbia. What a memorable night at the park. Perfect weather, brilliant game, and enthusiastic fanbases both. There wasn't a pitch that didn't elicit a crowd reaction. Noted Charleston resident Billy Murray was in attendance and had great things to say about the game, too. I know it's back in Greenville next year, but I sure hope they bring the game to Charleston at some point (although Leggett already mentioned that traveling that far takes a toll on his team. I guess that's true, as we've seen from Omaha.)