CLEMSON — Jack Leggett was looking for anyone to bear-hug and happened to run into Clemson’s star of the night.
Sophomore Jeff Schaus hit a game-winning, two-run double with one out in the ninth inning to help Clemson avoid disaster and vault the top-seeded Tigers to a 5-4 victory against the fourth-seeded Golden Eagles in their NCAA regional opener.
“(That) was a little too close,” said Schaus, who finished 2-for-5 with a homer and 3 RBIs. “Going to the loser’s bracket would have been tough.”
The Tigers (41-19) are hardly out of the woods, but their ninth-inning rally certainly wards off the need for a rescue crew.
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They advance to today’s 7 p.m. winners’ bracket contest with third-seeded Oklahoma State (33-22), and the winner will have Sunday and Monday to advance to the Super Regionals. Sophomore lefty Casey Harman (7-3, 3.86) will start for the Tigers; the Cowboys did not announce a starter, although odds favor junior lefty Andrew Oliver (5-6, 5.58).
Clemson, winner of all eight home regional and Super Regional series since the NCAA adopted the current tourney format in 1999, put that streak in jeopardy by failing to capitalize on scoring opportunities late against Tennessee Tech (30-23-1).
The Golden Eagles clung to a 4-3 lead entering the ninth after Clemson stranded the tying run in scoring position the previous three innings.
But on the verge of losing its 15-game postseason win streak at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, the Tigers produced their second dramatic win in as many games, following up Wilson Boyd’s bases-loaded single last week to beat North Carolina at the ACC tournament.
“Holy cow,” Leggett said. “We could have taken a different path there at the end, but we kept ourselves in the ball game.”
Tennessee Tech — which upset Wake Forest (2001) and Ohio State (1997) in its most recent NCAA regional appearances — nickel-and-dimed its way to a 4-1 lead through five innings, but it was shutdown thereafter by reliever Graham Stoneburner.
Stoneburner allowed two hits in 4ð innings of scoreless work. And in the bottom of the fifth, a Mike Freeman RBI groundout, followed by a Schaus solo homer, pulled Clemson to within one run at 4-3.
But the Tigers — who got their leadoff batter on base each of the final seven innings — were unable to plate the tying run despite opportunities in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
“That will catch up to you,” Tennessee Tech coach Matt Bragga said. “That scores 40 percent of the time. That’s playing with fire.”
And the Golden Eagles finally got burned.
In the ninth, speedy lefty Addison Johnson — pinch-hitting for third baseman Jason Stolz — blooped a single to left, his first hit since May 15. Chris Epps followed with a bunt single past the pitcher to put runners on second and first.
Then Mike Freeman struck out, making Clemson 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position. In the ACC tournament, they went 4-for-33 (.121).
But just as they did in the tourney finale, the Tigers made their few successes count.
Schaus pulled a high slider inside the first-base bag and into the right-field corner. As the relay throw trickled in from the outfield, Epps slid home uncontested.
Leggett corralled Schaus in the infield, and Clemson had dodged disaster.
“It was frustrating for us to leave guys on those first eight innings,” Schaus said. “But we stuck in there and knew we’d have a chance at the end. And it worked out.”