The years keep turning over, but the results stay the same.
South Carolina defeated Clemson 8-0 Sunday afternoon at Carolina Stadium to claim the annual series between the rivals. The Gamecocks, who haven’t lost more games than they’ve won against the Tigers since the 2006 season, won the rubber match behind senior left-hander Nolan Belcher’s sparkling complete-game shutout and a string of timely hits.
After taking two-of-three games over the weekend, the No. 7 Gamecocks (8-2) have won 20 of the past 28 games against the Tigers (6-4) since the start of the 2007 season. USC won on a 6-0 shutout Friday night at Clemson before the Tigers bounced back with a 6-3 win in Greenville Saturday.
That loss left the Gamecocks unhappy with their play on the bus ride back to Columbia. USC coach Chad Holbrook credited his players with channeling that into Sunday’s series-clinching effort.
“It’s not just a regular series. It’s important. It’s Clemson against South Carolina — two great baseball programs,” Holbrook said. “I’d have been very upset with my team if they weren’t ready to go and they didn’t rise to the occasion. That doesn’t guarantee us that we’re going to win, but they had a chip on their shoulder today and it was good to see.”
It didn’t hurt that Belcher (2-1) allowed three hits with no walks while striking out seven in the second complete game of his career. He was every bit as good as Friday’s winner, Jordan Montgomery, who threw eight shutout innings.
“Nolan Belcher was fantastic,” Holbrook said. “It was special for me to be able to see him do that. He’ll remember that start the rest of his life.”
Catcher Grayson Greiner, who also caught Montgomery’s start, called Belcher’s outing just as impressive.
“It was pretty special to be a part of it,” Greiner said. “He’s just one of those guys who is able to spot three pitches down in the zone. He’s very confident in what he does out there, and that showed today.”
The fifth-year senior, who missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery, has filled nearly every role on the USC staff since arriving in 2009, when he tossed his only other complete game. By holding Clemson to three singles — and pitching out of jams in the third and seventh innings — he put an exclamation point on the series.
After his third and best outing on the season, his ERA dropped to 2.18. He has 23 strikeouts and one walk in 202/3 innings.
“To go out there and have that kind of success against them in a big game like this is really special,” Belcher said. “I can’t thank Greiner enough. He caught a great game back there. Our defense made some clutch plays when it needed. And, obviously, our hitters there in the sixth really battled late in the game. It was impressive to watch.”
Just as it did Friday night, an error cost Clemson in a big way. Second baseman Steve Wilkerson dropped a floating liner to open the sixth inning, and the Gamecocks took advantage with four straight two-out hits that plated five runs. Joey Pankake, Erik Payne and Greiner all had RBI singles, and Connor Bright capped the outburst with a two-run double into the left-field corner.
“We opened the door a little bit for them, and they got some big hits,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “We didn’t make a play early in that inning, and four outs in the same inning didn’t bode well for us.”
The Gamecocks never looked back.
“From that point forward, we were just relaxed and having fun,” Greiner said. “We left it in Belcher’s hands, and he did what he always does.”
Bright, who had two hits in getting his third start of the season, believes the Gamecocks play their best against their rivals when they’re loose.
“Coming in, we know they’re a good team and they’re going to step up to the plate as a big rival looking to take the series,” Bright said. “We just try to stay comfortable and play the game we know.”
Belcher also sees that comfort level as one reason that the Gamecocks are 13-7 against the Tigers in his five seasons.
“If you put too much pressure on yourself at this level, you’re never going to make it. You’re not going to play up to your ability,” he said. “So we do a good job of staying relaxed and having fun with the game.”
The Gamecocks took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning when Chase Vergason laced a home run off Scott Firth (2-1) over the right-field fence. As it turned out, that would be all the support Belcher would need.
“It couldn’t happen to a better kid,” Holbrook said
Nolan Belcher, Chad Holbrook postgame
Jack Leggett postgame