In what has become the most intense, hotly contested and popular weekend series in the college game, Clemson defeated South Carolina 8-7 on Sunday, capturing the Palmetto Series two games to one.
The wild celebration after Drew Wharton's walk-off triple beats South Carolina (courtesy of The State)
In the 9th, after earlier blowing a 6-0 lead, Tiger Drew Wharton doubled off the wall, scoring Robert Jolly from first base and sending 6,312 sun-splashed fans home after enjoying yet another thriller (see below for the highlight).
On Saturday, Clemson capitalized on command issues from South Carolina starter Cody Morris and reliever Gage Hinson, leveraging eight walks in a 5-1 Tiger win in front of 7,385 at packed Fluor Field in Greenville, SC. The key blow was struck by Clemson catcher Kyle Wilkie in the fifth inning. With the game tied at 2 and after striking out twice in his first two plate appearances, Wilkie drove a two-out single through the right side, scoring two for a 3-2 Tiger lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The series opened Friday at Founders Park in Columbia in front of 8,242 rabid fans. The story was all about Gamecock starter Adam Hill, who was scintillating over 7 innings, striking out 14 Tigers and allowing only two hits. One of those was a another homer by Gamecock Killer Seth Beer, a blast that gave Clemson a 2-1 lead in the fifth. However, South Carolina fought back and, behind a sacrifice fly by TJ Hopkins that scored pinch runner Danny Blair, won in dramatic "walk-off" fashion, 3-2 (see below for highlight).
This weekend, under pressure and bright lights, both Monte Lee and Mark Kingston gained insight into their respective teams as they look to opening conference play. Clemson opens March 9th at home versus Georgia Tech while South Carolina has one more weekend tuneup before #1 Florida comes to Founders Park on March 16th.
"I learned a lot about my team today", said Kingston of his 7-5 Gamecocks. "I learned that when we fell behind 6-0 were not going to give up to anybody, at any time. I think that's important."
While this is a gritty bunch, South Carolina appears to be a work in progress, with several questions remaining unanswered.
8,242 at Founders Park in Columbia, SC - March 2, 2018
Perhaps the most important being when will LF Carlos Cortes get going at the plate? Cortes looked uncomfortable the entire weekend, going 1-10 in the series, and now sits with a .171 batting average. He was off balance and consistently "rolling over" pitches, resulting in five weak ground balls to the pull (right) side. His one hit Sunday was actually a chopper to Tiger second basemen Jordan Greene, who mis-played the ball into what was scored an RBI single.
Cortes does lead the team with 10 RBI, has walked 11 times vs just 6 strikeouts and made a big throw Saturday gunning down a Tiger runner at the plate.
Mark Kingston is left flummoxed on what to do with Cortes after dropping him down the order to the 8-hole Sunday. "Carlos needs to be good. If we're going to be good, he needs to be right in the center of it. Is it giving him a day off, continue to work and give him swings, we'll sit down with him and figure out the best plan for Carlos".
It will be interesting to see if top recruit and freshman outfielder Kyle Jacobsen gets more at-bats in the next few games, both to spell Cortes but also get him good looks before the premium power arms of Florida arrive at Founders.
Another critical offense piece for the Gamecocks is RF Jacob Olson, who through 44 at bats this season is hitting just .182. However, Olson pounded the ball into the Tiger defense all weekend and was finally rewarded with two doubles Sunday, contributing to the comeback. He'll be just fine.
While weekend starters Adam Hill (Friday) and Cody Morris (Saturday) are set, the Sunday starter for the Gamecocks is less certain. In the series finale Kingston gave the ball to 5-11, 190 pound freshman LHP John Gilreath, who entered the game un-scored upon in 11.1 innings this season.
Gilreath will not blow anyone away with his 85-87 fastball, but he changes speeds well and was around the plate for most of his 3.2 inning outing. He struck out Seth Beer with a 76 mph change up, inducing the slugger to lunge & swing with futility at the offering. He also featured a 73 mph breaking ball and gamely competed against the potent Tiger bats. He ran into some tough luck in the Tigers 3-run 4th, as few of the balls put in play were stuck with much authority, but those hits knocked him from the game nonetheless. He yielded 6 earned runs.
"I think Gilreath's gonna be very, very good for them", said Monte Lee after the game. "He really pounds the zone, keeps the ball down, with a good change up".
With the departure of premium bullpen arms Tyler Johnson and Josh Reagan, the Gamecock relief core remains somewhat unsettled. Eddy Demurias was outstanding on Friday, coming in with one out and runners on first and second, only to retire Beer and Patrick Cromwell to keep South Carolina within striking distance, down 2-1.
Highly touted freshman RHP Carmen Mlodzinski has been used in the back end and certainly looks the part. The 6-3 power arm features a nasty slider and fastball that sits 92-94. He's struggling a bit with command and was touched Sunday by Wharton's walk-off triple, elevating his ERA to 6.75. However, he figures heavily into the pitching plans moving forward.
One clear strength for the Gamecocks is the play of SS Madison Stokes and 2B LT Tolbert. The 6-3, 208 pound Stokes put on impressive batting practice displays all weekend, driving the ball with authority, mostly to the pull side. He's currently slashing .435/.567/.1.087, with four homers while walking more than he's striking out (7BB/5K).
Tolbert has reached base at a .500 clip, scored nine runs while showing advanced plate discipline. His 9th inning blast Sunday off Ryley Gilliam was a real eye opener (see below).
6,312 at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, SC - March 4, 2018
Meanwhile, the 10-1 Clemson Tigers are firing on all cylinders. Prior to Sunday's game, the pitching staff had yielded just 4 earned runs over five consecutive weekend games against Dallas Baptist and South Carolina. Both Friday's Jacob Hennessy and Saturday's Brooks Crawford provided stellar starts, combining to throw 9.2 innings while allowing just a single earned run. The staff was rightfully the story of the early season heading into Sunday.
Sunday starter Jake Higginbotham was rolling early, flashing a 90-93 heater and taking a shutout into the 5th. There, however, his velocity dropped to 88-91 and he started missing up in the zone. He allowed back-to-back singles to Justin Row and Noah Campbell before Hopkins homered, retired the next three hitters and was done after 5 complete innings.
Flash forward to the 9th when Clemson took a 7-5 lead with ace closer Gilliam on the mound. Leadoff hitter Noah Campbell reached on an error by 2B Greene, followed by a walk to Stokes. Tolbert lit up Gilliam with a double off the right-center field wall and suddenly it was 7-6 . Gamecock catcher Chris Cullen's sac fly tied the game, setting up Wharton's walk-off for the series win.
Although Gilliam wasn't helped by his defense (both runs were unearned), he's struggled a bit this season to find his command. He was touched up the previous Sunday by Dallas Baptist and has walked 5 while striking out 12 in 7 innings of 2018 work.
What Sunday's win proved is that Clemson can beat you in a variety of ways, and yesterday was pure offense, scoring 8 runs on 11 hits while taking 7 walks in the process.
"You've gotta find a way to win games in different ways, said Lee. "There's gonna be days when pitching & defense wins the game for you where the offensive can't get it going. They'll be days when we have to score, and today was one of those days."
A key cog in the Tiger offense this year has been senior 3B Patrick Cromwell, hitting in the critical 3-hole between Beer and Chris Williams. Sunday he went the opposite way for a homer in the first, setting the tone for the day. Later in the 4th with the score 4-0 Tigers after Logan Davidson doubled home Justin Hawkins, coach Kingston decided to intentionally walk Beer with two out. After a wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position, Cromwell responded with a sharp two-strike 2-RBI single for a big 6-0 lead.
When asked about Cromwell after the game, Lee said "I'm glad you asked about me Patrick Cromwell. He's a kid we recruited to come here from across the country (Santa Ana JC, California), he was our starting 3B last year, struggled some offensively for us and we took him out of the lineup. He kept his head up, kept working and working, came back in the fall a better player and found a way back into the lineup because he's earned it. He's a major offensive contributor for us, right in the heart of our lineup. That's the difference in our lineup right now, having him hit between Seth and Chris".
Another weapon is SS Logan Davidson, who homered for the first time this year on Sunday after hitting 12 bombs a year ago. While his average is at .270, Davidson walked 8 times this weekend and is now reaching base at a .481 clip. He also stole two bases Friday night and has scored 11 runs on the season.
One offensive area where the Tigers may be lacking is speed. That could change when freshman CF Kier Meredith is finally ready to play as he continues to nurse a shoulder injury. When right, Meredith is a dynamic weapon with game-changing speed and an ideal top of the lineup guy who can beat you with his legs.
There is no question the Palmetto Series prepares both Clemson and South Carolina for the rigors of conference play and the intensity of the post season. We'll continue to watch both teams closely as the season progresses.
South Carolina travels to Charlotte to play Appalachian State Tuesday, hosts North Carolina A&T on Wednesday then welcomes Princeton to Founders Park this weekend
Clemson hosts Wofford Tuesday, Michigan State Wednesday at Fluor Field, then opens ACC play at home against Georgia Tech