The first burst of emotion in Clemson-South Carolina 2018 came in the first inning Friday evening at Founders Park.
Adam Hill, teasing another special performance as USC’s ace, beat his chest and yelled in the direction of the Gamecock dugout. The right-hander’s 95 mph fastball had just whipped past Patrick Cromwell’s swing, ending the opening frame of the 316th installment of this storied rivalry.
Hill, like the rest of the current Carolina roster, is searching for his first Clemson series victory. His pride was evident from strikeout No. 1 to 14. USC’s lead pitcher was electric for the second straight outing, mowing down the 14th-ranked Tigers like he did lower profile Charleston Southern a week earlier.
His one crucial mistake was just part of what became a memorable evening in front of 8,242 spirited fans.
South Carolina overcame more Seth Beer heroics to beat Clemson, 3-2, in walk-off fashion.
TJ Hopkins’ sacrifice fly plated Danny Blair in the bottom of the ninth to give USC an epic win.
The Gamecocks improved to 7-3. The Tigers dropped to 8-1.
Some way for first-year USC coach Mark Kingston to introduce himself to this rivalry.
“It really lived up to the hype,” Kingston said. “The crowd was great. The guys were really into it. There was emotion on both sides. There’s no question in my mind that it’s the No. 1 rivalry and series in the country.
“And I think tonight was more evidence of that.”
Take the ninth inning as Exhibit A.
After USC closer Eddy Demurias worked a perfect top-half, the Gamecocks started their final chance with a Jonah Bride walk. He took second and third after a failed pick-off attempt from Clemson closer Ryley Gilliam. Bride was then replaced by Blair, a pinch-running specialist.
Hopkins, with one out and Noah Campbell at first, brought Blair home on a skyed shot to left.
A celebration ensued.
“I faced Gilliam last year and I know that he’s a power-curve, power-fastball guy,” Hopkins said. “And I just went up there … I told myself when I was walking up to be easy and, if he throws me a fastball, try to put it over second base. If he hangs me a curveball, just put your bat on it and get it up in the air. … I still don’t know how I hit it in the air.”
Beer, a two-time All-American and annual thorn in Carolina’s side, broke up Hill’s no-hit bid in the sixth inning with a towering two-run homer to the USC bullpen in right-center field. It was the 37th HR of Beer’s career, fourth in seven games against Carolina.
“The one pitch to Beer, obviously, was probably one of my only bad (change-ups) of the night,” Hill said.
Beer, to that point, looked outmatched by Hill. He grounded out to Hill in the first inning and struck out in the fourth. Like the rest of the Tigers, Beer was mostly fooled by Hill’s combination of heat – which peaked at 97 mph – and nasty breaking stuff. His 110th pitch, an off-speed delivery to Grayson Byrd, gave Hill K No. 14, trying the Founders Park record he set last week.
Hill never returned after retiring Byrd. His final line: 7 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 14 Ks, 2 BBs
“Plus-fastball, plus-fastball command,” Kingston said of Hill’s best pitches. “The slider, he was throwing at will for strikes down and away. He got ahead of hitters, too.”
Hill retired four of the five Tigers he faced -- including three strikeouts in the seventh -- after Beer’s bomb
“That’s what he’s supposed to do with that pitch,” Hill said. “It was a bad pitch.
“It was business as usual. You got to keep attacking. It was my job to keep our team in the game. That’s what I tried to do.”
Hill’s show appeared it would come in a losing effort until Matt Williams, a career .230 hitter, threw garnet and black supporters into a frenzy in the eighth inning. Kingston opted to pinch-hit Williams for Justin Row to lead off the frame. The fifth-year senior responded with a game-tying home run over the bullpen in right-center.
Williams, who entered because of the matchup against Clemson righty Owen Griffith, was around the program in 2014, the last time the Gamecocks won this series.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity Coach gave me,” Williams said. “It’s kind of surreal, but it’s fun. After I hit it, I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t really breathe until about five minutes after getting in the dugout.”
What: South Carolina vs. No. 14 Clemson
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fluor Field in Greenville
Probable pitchers: South Carolina’s Cody Morris, So. RHP (2-0, 3.38 ERA) vs. Clemson’s Brooks Crawford, Jr. RHP (1-0, 2.00 ERA)
Radio: 107.5 FM in Columbia, South Carolina