COLUMBIA — South Carolina senior Nolan Belcher didn’t expect to go the distance against Clemson on Sunday. Given what he’s gone through in his Gamecocks career, Belcher was ready for anything.
Belcher threw a three-hit shutout to lead South Carolina to an 8-0 victory over Clemson, the fourth straight season the Gamecocks have won the season series with their state rivals.
The Gamecocks (8-2) entered the weekend having won 18 of the previous 25 games and kept up that domination under first-year coach Chad Holbrook. Belcher was a big reason why, scattering three singles and retiring 11 straight batters during one stretch. He ended things with his seventh strikeout, preserving South Carolina’s second shutout of the series.
South Carolina took a 6-0 victory on Friday at Clemson before the Tigers rebounded Saturday with a 6-3 win at Greenville’s minor league facility.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff with injuries since I’ve been here,” said Belcher, who did not pitch in 2011 after Tommy John surgery. “To go out there and have that kind of success against those guys is special.”
Chase Vergason gave Belcher all the run support he’d need with a solo homer in the fourth inning. The Gamecocks broke the game open with a five-run sixth, capped by Connor Bright’s two-run double into the left field corner.
Clemson put the pressure on Belcher early, loading the bases in the third on single, an error and a hit batter. But Steve Wilkerson flied out to left to end the Tigers’ threat. Getting out of the jam seemed to settle down Belcher (2-1) and he didn’t allow another hit until the seventh.
“What really calmed me down was when we scored all those runs in the sixth,” Belcher said with a smile.
Some bad defense opened the door for South Carolina, whose big inning started when Wilkerson couldn’t handle Graham Saiko’s soft liner to start things off. Starter Scott Firth had a chance to get out of the inning after striking out Max Schrock, but Joey Pankake had a two-out, RBI single into left.
“That kind of got a little momentum going,” Holbrook said.
Erik Payne and Grayson Greiner followed with run-scoring hits before Bright, put in the lineup Sunday after playing only four games this season, had his double to left that put the Gamecocks ahead 6-0. All five of the runs were unearned.
Clemson had no answers, much like it’s been the past few seasons in the rivalry. The Tigers (6-4) won two out of three games in the series in 2010, but dropped two straight to South Carolina in that year’s College World Series – the first of the Gamecocks two straight national titles.
Clemson was eliminated from the NCAA tournament a year ago here by the Gamecocks in regional play. This latest loss was the fifth straight at Carolina Stadium.
“It’s tough to beat a good team when you give them extra opportunities,” Firth said. “There can’t be any excuse, though. It’s my job to get us out of the inning with as few runs as possible. And unfortunately, I couldn’t shut it down.”
Clemson jumps into Atlantic Coast Conference play next weekend at North Carolina State. Tigers coach Jack Leggett told his players it was time to turn the page for league play. “I feel good about my team,” he said. “We played well yesterday and I’ve seen flashes of what we’ve got. We’ve got some good young players.”
Holbrook was happy to see the aggressiveness of his players heading into the series’ decisive game. He said there was a disappointment and frustration among the team on the bus ride back to campus after Saturday’s defeat. “I really didn’t have to say anything to them,” he said.
South Carolina showed the aggressive approach Holbrook wanted and that will serve them well throughout the season. “They had a chip on their shoulder,” he said.