Steve Wilkerson came into the Columbia regional in probably the worst slump of his career. The sophomore second baseman was in a 2-for-26 spiral when he stepped to the plate in the third inning with Clemson trailing by a run.. He drilled the first of his two home runs on the day to propel the Tigers to a 10-2 victory against Saint Louis in an elimination game Saturday afternoon at Carolina Stadium.
Shane Kennedy added a solo blast as Clemson hit a season-high three home runs.
“I haven’t been swinging it well the last couple of games, and it’s funny that one little thing can click for you,” Wilkerson said. “A mechanical thing clicked for me and I was just able to get some good swings in and it seemed to carry over..”
Clemson (40-21) avoided going 0-2 in NCAA tournament play for the first time since 1981 and will play the South Carolina-Liberty loser in another elimination contest Sunday at 1 pm.
“We had a number of guys step up,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “It was a much better team effort today. Everybody contributed in key situations. We’ve been struggling with that, so it was good to see. We’ll get some rest and figure who we play next.”
Wilkerson, a junior who had two home runs in 218 at-bats this season coming into the day, unloaded in the third and fourth innings to help stake the Tigers to a 6-1 lead. It was the second time this season a Clemson player had a multiple home run game and the third time the Tigers went deep more than once as a team this year.
Wilkerson’s first home run, a two-run shot, was a no-doubter that landed on Ray Tanner Way beyond the right field fence. Two outs later, Kennedy — who had a team-high three hits — followed with his a blast to give Clemson two home runs in the same inning for the first time this season. That increased the lead to 3-1.
Wilkerson’s second home run, a two-out, three-run blast, just cleared the railing in right field to give him a career-high five RBIs.
“It’s always big to break the ice and get that first run across the plate,” Wilkerson said. “It created some energy in the dugout and gets everybody into it. I think we built on that and really started swinging it the rest of the day.”
The victory snapped the Tigers’ six-game losing streak. An inning before Wilkerson jump-started the offense, Clemson failed to score after loading the bases with no outs. Leggett thought being able to respond so quickly after the disappointment of not scoring in the second inning was key.
“We’ve been in that situation a lot,” Leggett said of not scoring with the bases loaded. “That was a frustrating time for us but at least it was early in the ball game. We responded the next inning with the home run, and that was a good thing. If we would have come up empty the next inning or two, then you start thinking about it a little bit and who knows what happens.”
Saint Louis coach Darin Hendrickson agreed not shutting Clemson down after getting out of the second inning was key.
“We got out of the big jam like that and we thought maybe we could push a few across and let them chase us,” he said. “The home runs were mistake pitches, but the two-out home run preceded by the walk to the No. 9 hitter was the back-breaker of the game.”
Wilkerson’s day was more than enough run support for Daniel Gossett. The Tigers’ ace worked six innings and threw 115 pitches on a hot, muggy day. He allowed two runs on five hits with two strikeouts and five walks.
He worked in and out of trouble most of the day but limited the Billikens (41-21) when they had runners in scoring position. Kyle Schnell pitched the final three innings and allowed two hits with a walk and a strikeout to earn his second save.
Gossett improved to 10-4.
“I thought (Gossett) was good today for us on the mound,” Leggett said. “He wasn’t exceptional with his stuff as far as his command but he battled through for us before his pitch count got up there early. Schnell came in and did a great job for us.”