Morris: USC, Clemson one step away from much-anticipated meeting in Columbia regional

rmorris@ thestate.comJune 2, 2013 

THERE IS THIS terrific little number by The Mavericks titled “One Step Away” about a man and a woman being that close to a desired relationship. The country music group could as easily have been singing about the Columbia Regional.

South Carolina and Clemson are one step away from the anticipated matchup that will determine who advances to what is most likely going to be the Chapel Hill Super Regional.

All that is needed is for Clemson to take that final step and defeat Liberty on Sunday afternoon in a losers’ bracket game.

If it happens, the top two seeded teams will have taken different routes to the final, one a direct path based on doing what it did all season in taking care of business against teams it should beat, and the other trying to navigate the bumps of a losing streak that threatened to derail its season.

USC survived a scare from Saint Louis of the Atlantic 10 Conference in the opening round Friday by scoring four runs in the eighth inning. Then the Gamecocks blasted Liberty on Saturday, a Big South Conference opponent that appeared to suffer from severe stage fright.

This is what USC does in the postseason. It builds a case for hosting a regional during the regular season by finishing strong in the powerful SEC, then intimidates mid-major opponents in the regional tournament with strong pitching, hitting, defense and home crowds the likes of which most opponents never have seen.

Clemson, meanwhile, appeared to regain some of its footing in Saturday afternoon’s romp past Saint Louis. What the Tigers might have found was some confidence that seemed sapped from the club the previous weekend during the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C.

A crushing 12-7, 14-inning loss to North Carolina, the NCAA tournament’s top seed, was a test to the coaching acumen of Jack Leggett and his staff. Clemson let a three-run lead in the ninth inning slip away in a game that likely would have secured a host site for the NCAA regional.

Clemson’s season appeared to have hit a dead end with that game. The Tigers looked lifeless a day later in a 7-0 loss to Miami, then headed to Columbia, where they lost on Friday in the regional opening round to Liberty.

Players and coaches talked about how the loss to UNC had no lingering effect, but that is not what showed on the playing field. A hallmark of Leggett’s during his stellar career has been a team that plays hard, fundamental baseball. But it was missing of late.

Even into the second inning of Saturday’s game against Saint Louis, Clemson seemed more interested in beach plans following elimination. Saint Louis pushed across a run in the first inning and Clemson ace Daniel Gossett was anything but sharp.

Understand, this is an extremely youthful Clemson squad, one that featured six freshmen in both Friday’s and Saturday’s starting lineup. You had to wonder if the young team was capable of working through the mental aspects of a six-game losing streak.

Clemson needed a spark, anything to inject life into a team with one foot in the grave. Up stepped Steve Wilkerson, one of the few veterans on the squad as a junior. Wilkerson belted a two-run homer over the right field wall.

“We scored 10 runs in a game where we only needed to score three,” said Gossett, who recovered to throw six solid innings. “To see the bats rolling again gives you new confidence.”

Leggett saw the same kind of enthusiasm and excitement in the team that produced 11- and nine-game winning streaks in the second half of the regular season.

“Something negative leads to something negative, usually,” said Leggett, who turned philosophical on the subject. “Something positive leads to something positive. ... The home run put us up 2-1 and that was a big deal for us. You could feel it in the dugout. It was a little bit of a relief, a little bit of, ‘OK, now let’s go to work and relax.’ ”

Now if Clemson can go to work and relax against Liberty, the Tigers and USC will square off for the regional championship. The matchup is one step away. Tune it up Mavericks.

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