By Steven Bradley
COLUMBIA — Coming into the season, Clemson had hoped it could be opportunistic on offense and take advantage of its opponents’ mistakes in order to score runs. On Sunday afternoon at Carolina Stadium — much like they had Friday at home — the Tigers got a firsthand look at how that is done.
Starter Scott Firth allowed just four hits and one run through five innings before an error to open the bottom of the sixth inning also opened the floodgates for South Carolina in an 8-0 loss in the rubber game of the rivalry series.
“That’s what good teams do: If you give them a little room to take advantage of something, that’s what they do,” Firth said. “You’ve got to give it to them today that that’s what they did, but in the future that’s what I think we’re looking to do as an offense and as a team, really.
“If somebody gives us an inch, we’re going to try to take a mile — and that really has to be a mindset.”
Firth coasted through the first inning, needing just nine pitches — eight of them for strikes — to retire the Gamecock side. The senior right-hander allowed just two hits through three innings, both of them singles that came to nothing.
Chase Vergason broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth, as he turned on a 2-1 fastball from Firth and deposited it over the right-field fence for the game’s first run, but Firth needed just six pitches to retire the next three men and end the frame.
Things unraveled quickly in the sixth, however, as Graham Saiko reached to lead off on an error by Steve Wilkerson, who he couldn’t corral a tailing liner at second base, and Vergason moved him into scoring position with a sac bunt.
Firth then fanned Max Schrock, but after an intentional walk to L.B. Dantzler, Joey Pankake singled through the left side to score Saiko.
Up next, Erik Payne singled past a diving Tyler Krieger at short to bring another run around from second, and then Grayson Greiner blooped a hit into shallow right to score Pankake. Connor Bright then hit a ball into the left-field corner to score two more and make it 6-0.
“It’s tough to beat a good team when you give them extra outs or opportunities,” Firth said. “At the same time, it’s my job as a pitcher to go out there and work through whatever may happen out there — whether it’s errors or bad calls. There can’t be any excuse. It’s my job to get out of that inning with as few runs as possible, and unfortunately I couldn’t shut it down today.”
The Gamecocks added single runs in the seventh and eighth innings, but that extra insurance was hardly needed, as they held the Tigers to three hits for the second occasion in the series.
“Just as a team and as a whole, we didn’t really get anything started,” said catcher Garrett Boulware, who had one of the three hits. “We’d build something, and we’d kind of kill it at the end of the inning. Or we’d get something building with two outs, and you can’t really do much with it.”
The game bore a striking resemblance to the series opener Friday at Clemson, when Daniel Gossett had allowed just one run and three hits through six innings before an error allowed USC to pull away with three runs in the seventh.
The Tigers also managed just three hits in that game, but they bounced back to beat their rivals from the Midlands 6-3 on Saturday at Fluor Field in Greenville in the Reedy River Rivalry game, as freshman righty Clate Schmidt allowed just two runs on five hits in 7.0 innings to earn the win and Thomas Brittle, Steven Duggar, Jay Baum and Tyler Krieger each recorded two hits to pace Clemson’s 11-hit attack.
Unfortunately, the Clemson offense took another step back Sunday and never really threatened to score.
“Forget about the score,” head coach Jack Leggett said. “I don’t care about the score. We lost the ball game, it’s over with. We’ve got a big week ahead of us. I’ve seen a lot of good things out of our team. We’ve just got to build upon that. We’re a little bit young in some places, and we’ve got to make ourselves a little better in other places.
“But we’ve been pitching pretty well. I thought our starting pitching was pretty good this weekend. We just opened the door a little bit defensively on Friday night, and we did the same thing on a couple of occasions here today. And offensively, we had a good day (Saturday), but not so good Friday and Sunday.”
Clemson (6-4) will host Wofford on Wednesday at 4 p.m. before going to N.C. State to open Atlantic Coast Conference play with a three-game set next weekend.