By John Whittle
First-year head coach Mark Kingston learned a lot about his team over the course of the weekend series against Clemson but the result was the same as the previous three years.
Senior Drew Wharton tripled off the top of the right-field wall in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Tigers an 8-7 win and the fourth straight series over the Gamecocks (7-5).
South Carolina, down 6-0 after four innings, fought back feverishly but one more big hit for the Tigers (10-1) kept the visitors from winning in Doug Kingsmore Stadium. The Gamecocks have won on Friday each of the last three seasons but gone on to lose each series.
“I learned a lot about my team today,” Kingston said. “I learned when we fell behind 6-0 that we’re not going to give up to anybody at any time, and I think that’s important. The message I just gave the team is we’re disappointed in the loss but we learned a lot about ourselves. A lot of teams, in this ballpark falling behind 6-0, is not going to do what we did today, so we did a lot of good things today.”
Even with the win on Friday, the Gamecocks held a lead for only one inning of the 27 played over the course of the weekend. Even with the late-game outburst on Sunday, the team was 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position for the three games.
“Last year’s team wouldn’t have done that,” junior LT Tolbert said. “I think that starts at the top. Coach Kingston, I’ll go to war with that guy any day. I think everybody feels the same. There’s a different feel this year and when we get down, it’s not the same. We’re battling back. There’s never a doubt in our mind or a lack of confidence, and I think that starts with Coach Kingston. We’re going to be fine.”
Clemson sprinted out to a 6-0 lead and it started in the first inning when senior Patrick Cromwell drove an opposite-field solo home run into the left-field stands off of freshman starting pitcher John Gilreath.
Seniors Chris Williams and Robert Jolly both delivered RBIs in the third inning while Logan Davidson bounced an RBI double inside the third base bag and Cromwell dropped a two-RBI single to right field in the fourth.
Gilreath left in the fourth inning allowing six runs on seven hits with three walks. He struck out five in his 82-pitch performance.
“Gilreath was solid,” Kingston said. “He left a couple balls up there and wasn’t quite ahead of hitters like he has been. It was a good learning experience for him, and something he’ll be able to build on.”
South Carolina was able to get back into the game putting up the next four runs. Junior TJ Hopkins launched a three-run home run in the fifth while Carlos Cortes had an RBI groundout in the sixth to cut the deficit to 6-4 with nine outs still to work with.
The home run was the first of the year for Hopkins, who was 2-for-5 on the day with one run scored and three RBIs.
“This team is different and we’re going to be absolutely fine moving forward,” Tolbert said. “We’re a really good team. That’s a top 10 team that we just played and we were with them all weekend. I have no doubt we’re a top 10 team as well.”
Clemson answered South Carolina’s run in the bottom half of the sixth when Logan Davidson, who was 3-for-6 with a double, home run and eight walks, in the series and won the Bob Bradley Award for top Tiger in the rivalry, hit a solo shot off of reliever Eddy Demurias.
“Stay calm, stay positive, don’t give in and we’ll be just fine,” Kingston said. “That’s how championship teams react; you fall behind, you can panic or stay calm, focused and that’s what we did. That’s why we were able to tie it and have the winning run at third base in the ninth.”
South Carolina kept fighting, however, and scored the next three runs to tie the score. An RBI single by Cortes to second base in the eighth brought South Carolina closer. An RBI double off the wall in right centerfield and then a sacrifice fly by Chris Cullen knotted the game at seven.
The ball by Tolbert almost carried over the wall, which would have given South Carolina a one-run lead.
“I just wanted to look for a good pitch and stay in the middle of the field,” Tolbert said. “I wasn’t sitting on a fastball, but I thought (Clemson closer Ryley Gilliam) was going to come with something hard. I got a good swing off on it. I didn’t get all of it, but I didn’t think it was going out.”
The winning run was scored by Jolly, who worked a one-out walk from freshman Carmen Mlodzinski before Wharton tripled to end the game. The walk was the seventh of the game for the Gamecocks, and the 21st of the weekend.
“We always talked about getting in on their hitters,” Mlodzinski said. “They see fastballs away and hit them like he did. I tried to go in and just left it over the plate.”
Demurias finished the game allowing one earned run on two hits and two walks. He struck out three in his 2 2/3 innings of work. Mlodzinski, who picked up the loss to drop to 0-2, gave up one run on one hit and a walk.
South Carolina is scheduled to return to the field on Tuesday to face Appalachian State at BB&T Park in Charlotte, N.C. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m.
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