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March 1, 2012

USC, Clemson ready for baseball battle



WHAT: No. 3 South Carolina (7-0) vs. No. 15 Clemson (4-2)
WHERE: Joe Riley Park, Charleston (Friday), Carolina Stadium, Columbia (Saturday), Doug Kingsmore Stadium, Clemson (Sunday)
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
TV/RADIO: Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 The Game in Columbia (Andy Demetra, Derek Scott, Tommy Moody)
PITCHING MATCHUPS:
USC -- LHP Michael Roth (Friday), RHP Matt Price (Saturday), RHP Colby Holmes (Sunday); Clemson - RHP Kevin Brady, RHP Dominic Leone (Saturday), TBA (Sunday)

Last year's shenanigans - and the ensuing fallout - surrounding alleged heated bats overshadowed the fact that South Carolina and Clemson have arguably the top rivalry in all of college baseball.

This year, USC coach Ray Tanner wants the focus to return to where it belongs - the field - as USC and Clemson renew their Palmetto State battle starting at 6 p.m. on Friday at sold-out Joe Riley Park in Charleston. The Gamecocks and Tigers also square off Saturday (Columbia) and Sunday (Clemson), each at 2 p.m.

Sellout crowds are expected at each venue.

"This is a pretty good situation for the two teams," Tanner said. "We can draw good crowds and we have interest from a lot of cities of getting this neutral game. It's really special. I know the players and fans are tremendously excited about it. We're looking forward to being in Charleston tomorrow.

"The Citadel coach (Fred Jordan) left me a message last night saying he couldn't remember the kind of buzz going on in Charleston like this before. He said it was really neat and a lot of fun. I know it's special. College baseball has come a long way."

This season marks the third consecutive year USC and Clemson have battled on the diamond in a three-game weekend series. USC won two of three games last year, including an emotionally charged 5-4 victory over the Tigers in Greenville that followed accusations a couple of days earlier that some Gamecock players were using heated bats.

"We've had some good competition, but last year it went awry a little bit," Tanner said. "As far as I'm concerned, we've discussed it, put it aside and moved on. It's back to baseball."

Tanner doesn't anticipate any carryover from last season, when the accusations seemed to overwhelm the rivalry.

"I don't expect anything other than great, competitive baseball," Tanner said. "Coach (Jack) Leggett and I have known each other for a long time. There were some emotions in that game and some things were said by their side and by our side. We were both guilty. Occasionally, that will happen in a rivalry. When we talked, it was over. It's been a great rivalry and a healthy rivalry."

USC has dominated the series in recent years, including a celebrated two-game sweep in the winner's bracket at the 2010 College World Series. Overall, USC has won five of the last seven and 11 of the last 16 meetings with the Tigers.

Since Clemson's 19-6 trouncing of USC at Carolina Stadium in the rubber game of the 2010 series, the Gamecocks have posted a record of 110-26 and captured back-to-back national championships.

The Gamecocks own a 17-game winning streak dating to last season. It is the nation's longest active winning streak.

USC will trot out the usual weekend rotation - Michael Roth (1-0, 0-69 ERA in 13 innings) on Friday, Matt Price (1-0, 1.80 ERA in 10 innings) on Saturday and Colby Holmes (2-0, 0.00 ERA in 10 2-3 innings) in the series finale on Sunday.

Roth will seek to extend Clemson's Friday losing streak to three games after the Tigers dropped series openers to UAB and Maine. He will be opposed by Kevin Brady (0-0, 0.90 ERA in 10 innings), whose last appearance in 2011 came against the Gamecocks.

"This is a very exciting weekend for us," Roth said. "It's a great test for our team and the young guys. We know how important this rivalry is to South Carolina and our fans. It's a lot of fun for us. We're going to go out there and try to win some ballgames."

Overall, the USC pitching staff has allowed eight runs and 23 hits in 63 innings with 74 strikeouts and 13 walks.

Tanner typically prefers to rely on older players in rivalry games, and this weekend should be no different. As a result, junior-college transfer Chase Vergason and senior outfielder Adam Matthews are expected to be in the starting lineup for Friday's series opener.

"I'm going to try to put as old of a team as I can on the field (Friday)," Tanner said. "I don't know if that's necessarily our best lineup but because of the emotions involved, I will make a decision about our lineup with that in mind."

How will younger players like catcher Grayson Greiner, shortstop Joey Pankake and outfielder Tanner English react to competing in the Palmetto State rivalry for the first time?

All three of those players, though, grew up in the Palmetto State, so they are familiar with the intensity of the rivalry.

"It will be interesting," Tanner said. "They know about it, they hear about it and many of them have seen it and witnessed it. But they haven't been involved in it yet. We'll probably have a few more youngsters in the game than they will. But they have some new players as well."

Greiner graduated from Blythewood High School and, like many Gamecocks, has competed against several players on the Clemson roster. Since he's a freshman, last year's events don't concern him at all.

"I grew up in Columbia and I've always been a Gamecock fan," Greiner said. "I know about the rivalry and all. But now that I'm here, I'm just trying to play baseball and come out and try to win a few games. Obviously, there are going to be great crowds. Hopefully, we'll have three good games of baseball."

The biggest question facing Clemson is the health of third baseman Richie Shaffer, who is batting .364 (8-of-22) with two homers and eight RBIs. He is listed as questionable with a groin injury.

Tanner said USC has prepared this week as if Shaffer will play.

"It's not going to affect us," Tanner said. "We try to figure out what we can do and try to do it to the best of our ability and try to win. We'll have a scouting report and coach (Jerry) Meyers will prepare for their hitters. We'll prepare as if he'll play. We hope he does play. Shaffer is one of the better players in the country, not just in the state of South Carolina. I know they would want for one of our guys to play. That's the way you want it."

The Tigers are averaging 6.2 runs per game and hitting .285 as a team. Phil Pohl leads the Tigers with a .476 batting average with two homers, two doubles, nine RBI and a .577 on-base percentage.

ALL-TIME SERIES: Clemson leads 168-125-2
LAST MEETING: USC won, 5-4, on March 8, 2011, at Greenville
STREAK: USC has won one.

USC'S PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
C - Grayson Greiner OR Dante Rosenberg
1B - Christian Walker
2B - Chase Vergason OR TJ Costen OR Connor Bright
3B - LB Dantzler
SS - Joey Pankake
LF - Tanner English OR TJ Costen
CF - Evan Marzilli
RF - Adam Matthews OR Tanner English
DH - TBA

CLEMSON'S PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
C - Spencer Kieboom
1B - Jon McGibbon
2B - Steve Wilkerson
3B - Richie Shaffer*
SS - Jason Stolz
LF - Dominic Attanasio
CF - Thomas Brittle
RF - Brad Felder
DH - Phil Pohl
*Status is questionable with injury.

NEXT FIVE GAMES
Fri. 3/2 vs. Clemson, 6 p.m. (at Charleston)
Sat. 3/3 vs. Clemson, 2 p.m.
Sun. 3/4 at Clemson, 2 p.m.
Wed. 3/7 vs. UNC Asheville, 7 p.m.
Fri. 3/9 vs. Princeton, 7 p.m.

NOTES

* USC's leading hitter entering the Clemson series is Christian Walker, with a .381 batting average (8-for-21) with one homer and eight RBI. Evan Marzilli has the most hits (10) and is tied with LB Dantzler for most total bases (12). Marzilli has reached base in all seven games this season and has all three of USC's stolen bases.

* Tanner voiced disagreement with a Big Ten proposal calling for regular-season games in the fall and fewer games in the spring. The Big Ten has also supposedly threatened to push its conference schedule back and play games during the NCAA tournament, essentially pulling out of that organization as far as college baseball is concerned.

SEC BASEBALL SCHEDULE (March 2-4)
(All three-game series unless noted)
Alabama at Tulane
Florida at Miami
Western Illinois at Georgia
Illinois-Chicago at Kentucky
Dartmouth at LSU
Miami (Ohio) at Ole Miss
Lipscomb at Mississippi State
Rhode Island at Vanderbilt
Tennessee at Houston tournament (Houston, Texas, Rice)
Auburn at Auburn tournament (Purdue, Charleston Southern, Southern Miss.)
Arkansas at Houston tournament (Texas Tech, Houston, Texas)

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D. McCallum


South Carolina NEWS

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