It was billed as a battle of aces.
It came down to the strength of the pens.
On a chilly Friday night at Carolina Stadium, No. 3 South Carolina rallied from a five-run deficit to defeat No. 11 Clemson 9-6 behind 5 RBIs from Grayson Greiner, whose grand slam in the bottom of the seventh electrified the sellout crowd of 8,242 fans and paved the way for USC remain unbeaten on the season.
"It was a great night for our team," said USC coach Chad Holbrook. "I was really, really proud of our team. They responded the right way. We talk about handling adversity all the time, and they were tested tonight and they handled the adversity.
"Our kids played awful hard and they competed every pitch. It took that for us to win tonight."
While Clemson starter Daniel Gossett was as good as advertised early, holding the Gamecocks (8-0) to one unearned run through 4.1 innings, South Carolina ace Jordan Montgomery was anything but his usual self, walking a career-high five batters and allowing six runs, all earned, through 5.1 innings.
"Jordan wasn't as sharp as he usually is," Holbrook said. "He left a lot of pitches up in the zone, the middle of the plate."
Montgomery felt the same way.
"It definitely wasn't one of my best," said Montgomery, whose second-inning run ended the Gamecocks scoreless streak at 52 innings. "I missed a few spots on a couple close calls I could have gotten. I had a few more walks than I usually do. I feel like I had pretty good stuff."
Trailing 5-1 after a fourth inning in which the Tigers scored four two-out runs on back-to-back doubles from Tyler Krieger and Garrett Boulware, Jordan Montgomery got into trouble again immediately in the fifth, walking the leadoff hitter, who came around to score after a bunt single from Steve Wilkerson moved him to second and a throwing error from Montgomery on a bunt attempt by Jay Baum. With runners at second and third and no outs trailing 6-1 and and Montgomery at 100 pitches, USC coach Chad Holbrook decided to leave his starter in the game and Montgomery responded by striking out the next three batters.
"I thought that the biggest moment in the game there was they had us 6-1, at second and third and nobody out and Montgomery pitched his rear-end off," Holbrook said. "He gave us a shot."
"I knew that last inning I had to play a little damage control," Montgomery said. "I just kind of bowed my neck and threw it in there."
With Gossett appearing in control, Schrock grounded out to start the bottom of the fifth before USC caught a break when Pankake reached on a throwing error by third baseman Weston Wilson - one of four Clemson errors on the night - then moved to second a batter later on Kyle Martin's clean single to right.
Connor Bright walked to load the bases with one out, then Grayson Greiner stepped to the plate and smashed a grand slam, the first since Greiner himself hit one against The Citadel in 2012, over the left-field wall for the third home run of the season and RBIs numbers 11 through 14.
"(The grand slam) wasn't exactly what I was trying to do, but it happened," Greiner said. "We didn't have much momentum at that point down five runs.
"I got a 2-0 fastball I could handle and I was fortunate to get it out of the park and get a little energy back in the crowd. That was kind of the turning-point momentum-wise, once we got that big hit."
Trailing by a run, the game cam down to which bullpen could close the other out, and the Gamecocks proved to have the superior arms. While Clemson trotted five pitchers out in relief of Gossett, USC needed just two, Cody Mincey and Joel Seddon, to shut Clemson out the rest of the way, allowing the Gamecocks offense enough time to get even then climb ahead.
That happened in the bottom of the sixth. Hitless in three at-bats with two strikeouts in which he looked overmatched against Gossett, left fielder Elliott Caldwell led off with a single to left off reliever Clay Bates (L, 0-1). Schrock followed with a single up the middle to put two on with no outs and fire up the capacity crowd. Pankake struck out, and Clemson changed pitchers again to put lefty Zack Erwin up against the left-handed Martin, who already had two singles on the night. Erwin walked Martin on five pitchers, causing the Tigers changed pitchers once more.
With Patrick Andrews on the mound and the bases loaded and one away, Bright tapped a grounder to first baseman Jon McGibbon, who fired to second to get Martin, allowing Caldwell to score the tying run. With runners on the corners and still just two out, Greiner smashed a line-drive rocket that Clemson shortstop Tyler Krieger knocked down but couldn't make a play on, scoring Schrock for Greiner's fifth RBI of the night, a career-high. Brison Celek struck out to end the inning, but the damage was done as the Gamecocks had taken a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
South Carolina added an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh when Tanner English hit a bomb well over the fence in left field his first home run of season and the second of his career. Meanwhile, relievers Cody Mincey (W, 1-0) and Joel Seddon were phenomenal, combining to throw the final three innings while allowing just one hit and striking out six. It was the first career win for Mincey and second save for Seddon.
"Cody was terrific and Joel kind of closed it for us," Holbrook said. "I'v said all along our bullpen is going to be done by a group, and togethr I think they have a chance to be a really good bullpen."
Especially on a night when the staff ace got into unexpected trouble.
"You can't ever give up," Holbrook said. "We're in our home, Carolina Stadium here. We know that momentum can change just like that here with a full house. If we could get a couple guys on, get a big hit, we're right back in the game.
"We have some old guys on our team. They understand that. It worked out for us tonight. Tonight we capitalized, Grayson got a big swing of the bat and that got energy and life back in our dugout."
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