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March 2, 2014

Gamecocks rally to stun, sweep Tigers


Holbrook


English

4
Mooney

CLEMSON - In the space of three feet - the distance between catcher Chris Okey's glove and the ground where he dropped the ball after tagging Grayson Greiner at home plate - Clemson's misery extended another 365 days.

Thanks to an improbable two-out, four-run ninth-inning rally, No. 3 South Carolina defeated Clemson 5-3 at Doug Kingsmore Stadium to sweep the three-game series and remain unbeaten at 10-0 on the season.

Trailing 3-1 in the top of the ninth with two on, two out and two strikes against pinch hitter Brison Celek, the Clemson crowd of 6,016 was on their feet clapping for the final strike to earn a win and a measure of self-respect in a series that has gone all USC's way since 2002. Instead, Celek stroked a soft single into left field, loading the bases and tightening the collars of all those in orange looking for something, anything to feel good about in a rivalry they can't get on the right end of.

Enter Marcus Mooney. On Saturday, the lasting image of the game is Mooney on his back with his hands up and Clemson third baseman Jay Baum standing over him wagging his finger in his face. With an 0-for-3 line Sunday hanging around his neck and having missed a golden RBI opportunity in the seventh when he hit into an inning-ending double play with runners at the corners and one out, Mooney didn't exactly fit the hero bill as he stepped to the plate against standout Clemson reliever Clate Schmidt, who had been dominant through two innings, striking out the side in the eighth.

Wasting no time, Mooney slapped a first-pitch fastball into the gap in right center field, scoring Kyle Martin and causing third base coach Sammy Esposito to wave Greiner around from second with the tying run.

The throw from center fielder Tyler Slaton was true, and as Greiner labored down the line toward home and slid Okey caught the throw, applied the tag - and dropped the ball.

Greiner was safe, the crowd was stunned and the game was tied.

"That was a big hit for Marcus," USC head coach Chad Holbrook said. "We got lucky, the ball bounced out of the kid's glove. (Slaton) made a great play in center field, we were just very, very fortunate."

The tie lasted exactly one batter, as Tanner English stroked a double down the left-field line to score Mooney and Zach Madden, who pinch-ran for Celek.

As lifeless as the crowd, many of whom left before the bottom of the ninth began, the Tigers (6-4) went quietly in the bottom of the ninth in order to spark a mini-celebration on the mound for a Gamecock team that keeps finding new ways to win.

"This was two really good teams going at it," said Holbrook, who improved his record against the Tigers to 5-1 dating to last year. "The ball bounced our way again here in the ninth inning. Big hit by our senior, Celek, to keep it going, down to our last strike, I guess.

"Then Tanner, who had been struggling, came up big again. Incredible team performance. I don't think we played that well through seven or eight innings, but we didn't quit, we didn't get down in the dugout. We persevered and got some big hits when we needed them."

The rally spoiled what had been a stellar day for Clemson pitcher Jake Long, who suffocated South Carolina through six-and-a-third innings allowing just one run on five hits before turning it over to Schmidt (L, 1-2). Long's effectiveness allowed him to out-duel USC freshman Wil Crowe, who despite a good line - 6.2 innings pitched, 8 hits and 3 runs allowed - was in line to take his first career loss before the rally.

Having not allowed a run all year in 12.2 innings, Crowe allowed his first run of the year in the first when the first batter he faced singled, was sacrificed over and scored on an RBI single a batter later. After that, Crowe settled in and pitched scoreless baseball through the next four innings before the Tigers got a solo run across in the bottom of the sixth to take a 2-1. His third run allowed came in the sixth when he was lifted with two outs and reliever Vince Fiori came on and allowed an RBI-single to Slaton.

The rally in the ninth was made possible by the relief pitching of Cody Mincey (W, 2-0). After Fiori recorded one out to end the seventh, Mincey threw the final two innings to get the win, allowing two hits, no runs and striking out three.

For Crowe, getting a no-decision was no big deal. What was a big deal was watching the four-run rally from the best seat in the house.

"It was awesome," Crowe said of the ninth inning. "We never thought it was over. We are always confident and we were confident in the dugout. Once we got a guy on we just kept scrapping and then came through with four runs.

"It feels good. I'm glad we got the sweep."

So is Holbrook, whose team swept Clemson for the first time since a four-game series in 2008.

"Sweeps are very, very rare," Holbrook said. "We'll take it."

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