TEMPE, Ariz. — Jack Leggett stomped his foot on the nearest bench, visibly frustrated after Clemson’s costly failure to close out an inning.
The expression also could have described the Tigers’ inability to capitalize on a rare vulnerability by Arizona State ace Mike Leake.
Either way, 16th-ranked Clemson (44-21) must put its foot down twice in order to prolong its season after dropping Saturday’s Super Regional opener 7-4.
The Tigers have to beat the No. 2 Sun Devils (48-12) today at 10 p.m. to force a final game Monday in the best-of-three series.
Sophomore designated hitter Chris Epps said the predicament is no different than last weekend, when Clemson lost the second game of its home regional, only to advance by winning three in a row.
“We’re going to take the exact same approach,” said Epps, who went 2-for-5 with three RBIs. “We’re going to go at it.”
Freshman lefty Chris Dwyer (5-5, 4.85) will go against Arizona State junior lefty Josh Spence (8-1, 2.37), who has thrown seven innings since suffering a hand injury.
The opener was tough to swallow.
Leake, the nation’s leader in wins, improved to 16-1 and tied the school record for career wins at 40.
Yet the Tigers scrounged three earned runs off the junior right-hander and projected first-round pick — matching a season-high — and rallied to tie the game at 4 in the seventh.
But as was the recurring theme, Clemson kept putting itself behind, surrendering another two-out run in the bottom of the seventh to sink their hopes.
Matt Newman cranked an RBI double off the center-field wall, pushing the Sun Devils ahead 5-4.
The game-winner came off sophomore reliever Graham Stoneburner, who had thrown 8Ð scoreless innings over his past four appearances.
Six of Arizona State’s seven runs came with two outs.
“We didn’t quite button things down like we needed to button them down,” Leggett said.
Stoneburner went downhill from there, surrendering a two-run, bases-loaded double in the eighth to make it 7-4.
Leake was then pulled after eight innings and 111 pitches, having allowed eight hits while striking out seven. His ERA rose from 1.23 to 1.36.
He said he was caught off-guard by Clemson’s plan of swinging at nearly all first pitches over the plate, calling it a performance reminiscent of his sophomore season.
In the same respect, the Sun Devils are in the same position as they were a year ago, up 1-0 in a Super Regional. Last season, they squandered the next two games to eventual national champion Fresno State.
“There are lots of ways to win two out of three,” coach Pat Murphy said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Down 3-2 in the sixth, Clemson appeared on the verge of squeezing more from Leake. With one out, Wilson Boyd blasted a ball that drifted to deep left-center. However, first-team All-America outfielder Jason Kipnis made a dazzling grab, lunging for a catch on the warning track to rob the Tigers of at least one run.
Arizona State tacked on another run for a 4-2 advantage in the sixth when Clemson third baseman Matt Sanders sailed a throw to the plate that would have beaten the runner.
As the Tigers have frequently done this postseason, they rallied to tie in the seventh, netting two runs on a full-count single by Epps.
But they ran out of resiliency Saturday, setting the stage for a last stand — or two.
“We really did a good job of what we wanted to do (against Leake), but I just wish we would have been a little stronger defensively and little sharper pitching in the middle of the game,” Leggett said.
“We just have to make momentum swing our way (today).”