GREENVILLE - Two innings into Saturday’s game between Clemson and South Carolina, the Tigers boasted a four-run lead and the look of a team ready to win the weekend series against their rival.
Jackie Bradley and Whit Merrifield put a hold on that.
The first two hitters in the USC lineup combined to drive in six runs in a 7-5 victory against the Tigers at Fluor Field to even the series at a game apiece. The duo provided the difference in a three-run ninth inning. Merrifield drilled a two-out double to right-center to score Scott Wingo, who had walked with one out and stolen second, to break the tie.
Bradley followed with an RBI single to right off Jonathan Meyer.
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"It was a great comeback," USC coach Ray Tanner said. "I’m proud of my team. It’s a good sign that you can battle."
The No. 15 Gamecocks (6-3) snapped a three-game losing streak to No. 13 Clemson (8-1) dating to last season. A crowd of 7,105 fans took in the game at the home of the Single-A Greenville Drive, the second-highest attendance in ballpark history.
The teams play the rubber game at 2 today at Carolina Stadium.
"We knew if we fought and got this win, we’d go back home. That’s where we play best," said Bradley, who had a two-run homer in the third inning, his first since coming back from a broken hand, and RBI singles in fifth and ninth.
Merrifield, who had a game-tying RBI single in the seventh to go with his ninth-inning tiebreaker, agreed.
"We wanted to even this series up and take it back to Columbia," said Merrifield, who extended his hitting streak to 23 games dating to last season, which leaves him two shy of the school record set by Greg Keatley in 1976.
After the first two innings, USC pitchers - starter Sam Dyson and relievers Jimmy Revan, Matt Price and Michael Roth - allowed one run the rest of the way. Price (1-0), who gave up an RBI single to Clemson’s Mike Freeman in the ninth, earned the victory, while Roth picked up his first save by getting one out.
"They really held in there," Bradley said. "Our pitching has been excellent all year. That’s big."
Clemson coach Jack Leggett was disappointed his team was not able to extend its lead.
"We were aggressive early today, and then we got a little bit tentative. We need to keep it up," Leggett said. "Even though you’ve got four runs, you’ve got to play nine full innings. You know it’s not going to be easy."
Tomas Cruz, the third of five Clemson pitchers, took the loss.
"We came out ready to go and pitched pretty well," Leggett said. "We let the game slide away from us in the ninth inning."
Tanner cannot say enough about Bradley, the sophomore outfielder who still deals with a sore hand but came up big anyway.
"He possesses some intangibles that you’d like to instill in all of your players," Tanner said. "He has confidence even when you have some adversity."
USC set up the ninth-inning rally when it tied the game at 4 in the seventh inning, Merrifield singling off reliever Alex Frederick with two outs to score Adrian Morales, who led off with a single.
The Tigers opened the game with back-to-back singles by Chris Epps and Freeman off Dyson to put runners on the corners. Jeff Schaus followed with a sacrifice fly to plate their first run.
Clemson added three more in the second. Richie Shaffer singled in Brad Miller, who led off the inning with a double to left. The Tigers did not get another hit in the inning, but they scored two more runs off Dyson, who balked in one run and wild-pitched another home that pushed the lead to 4-0 before following with 3ð scoreless innings.
"He settled down and did a nice job. He gave us a chance," Tanner said.
The Gamecocks sliced the lead in half in the third when Bradley homered to left with Merrifield on base after a walk. USC closed the lead to 4-3 in the fifth when Bradley delivered again, this time with a two-out bloop RBI single to center off Clemson starter Will Lamb.