Coastal Carolina was building toward a late night of revelry Tuesday at Springs Brooks Stadium with a 5-1 lead over Clemson in the eighth inning.
The Chants were about to have a number of reasons to celebrate.
They had sold the most tickets to an on-campus game in program history, they were on the verge of capturing an important win over the No. 10 team in the country that has historically dominated the teams’ all-time series, and coach Gary Gilmore was going to hit a milestone with his 900th victory at Coastal.
A four-run eighth punctuated by a three-run home run by Clemson cleanup hitter Chris Williams tied the game and put a pall over CCU’s anticipated gaiety.
But only temporarily.
Lee Sponseller’s walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted Coastal to a 9-5 win over the Tigers less than 30 minutes before midnight, as the game’s start was delayed 2 1/2 hours by the threat of thunderstorms.
“I wanted to really see us get to a point where things don’t go our way, that someone stops the bleeding, someone stops what’s going on in a negative manner and guys start picking each other up. Tonight’s game was a perfect example,” Gilmore said. “. . . That’s what makes a team.”
Cory Wood opened the ninth with a hustle double that was cut off in right-center field, Kevin Woodall Jr. was intentionally walked and Clemson coach Monte Lee brought in righthanded reliever Ryan Miller to face Zach Biermann, who walked to load the bases with no outs. Sponseller hit a 2-2 fastball over the right-center field fence.
“With no outs and the bases loaded, all I’ve got to do is square something up, hopefully deep in the outfield just to score the run,” Sponseller said. “That’s really all I was thinking about, especially when I got to two strikes. Luckily I squared it up well enough.”
Sponseller, a graduate student who joined the team this season after a three-year career at Division II Ohio Dominican, has been one of the hottest hitters in the Sun Belt Conference, leading the league in on-base percentage at .524 after reaching base safely in now 16 consecutive games. But he was 0-for-4 Tuesday before his game-winning hit.
“I could tell [Miller] was trying to throw changeups and he couldn’t find it,” Sponseller said. “I think he spiked two or three of them. He was throwing a really good two-seam, and just with him spiking those changeups I know he was probably nervous to spike another there with two strikes, and he didn’t want to throw a wild pitch to score the winning run, so I thought with the bases loaded he was going to come right at me and he did, and fortunately I put a good swing on the ball and got it done for the team.”
Coastal (16-7), ranked 27th by Collegiate Baseball, which has Clemson (16-5) ranked 10th, has won four straight following its sweep of Arkansas State to open Sun Belt Conference play – scoring 37 runs in the three games – after losing three straight and four of five games to stall an 11-3 start. Sponseller’s slam accounts for CCU’s fourth walk-off win this season and second via the home run.
Clemson had jumped on freshman reliever Zach McCambley for four runs in the eighth, including Williams’ homer to left-center field. McCambley gave up one-out singles to Logan Davidson, Seth Beer and Patrick Cromwell prior to the deep shot.
Conway's Jay Causey relieved McCambley and recorded a pair of outs sandwiched around a walk to end the inning, and didn’t allow a baserunner in the ninth to get his first win at CCU.
“We’ve been taught to pick each other up when we’re down. I just wanted to go in and throw strikes and not beat myself when I’m out there,” Causey said. “Just fill up the [strike] zone and get outs.
“You get gratification from every win, but this one was good, for sure.”
Clemson started the season 16-1, including a sweep of Georgia Tech to open ACC play, before being swept and outscored 15-5 by N.C. State last weekend. CCU had 11 hits and no errors while Clemson had six hits and two errors in its fourth consecutive loss.
"They were obviously the better team in all facets tonight," Lee said. "We put some offense together at the end of the game, hopefully we can build on that going into the weekend and try to regroup."
Coastal improved to 10-44 in the all-time series against Clemson, including 5-9 at home – the last home game being a 9-5 win in March 2015 – and is now 4-6 in the past 10 games against the Tigers since 2010. The teams meet again in Clemson on April 3.
The 4,130 tickets sold are the most for an on-campus game and sixth most for a Coastal home game, with the previous five being played at Pelicans Ballpark.
Gilmore’s 1,153rd overall win including six years at USC Aiken places his 33rd on the all-time NCAA Division I wins list. He has 464 losses and a tie against his 900 wins at CCU.
“Over my desk I have the thing my wife made for me for my 1,000th win. It’s a struggle for me to put into perspective just the ones I’ve won here,” Gilmore said. “It’s a great accomplishment by a group of coaches and players, and obviously I’m a part of it, but just one part of it. I’m very proud of it, I’m proud of what we’ve done. There are a lot of people who would like to have 900 wins anywhere in their life, so I know how blessed I am to have that.”
Coastal had built its 5-1 lead with single runs in the first and third innings and three in the second. In the first, Seth Lancaster reached base on a call of catcher interference for the sixth time this season, advanced to third on a wild pickoff attempt and scored on a wild pitch.
In the third, Parker Chavers walked, Keaton Weisz singled, Matt Beaird hit an RBI single, Lancaster added an RBI single and Wood executed a run-scoring squeeze bunt. Kieton Rivers triple to left-center scored on a single by Chavers in the third.
Clemson had tied the game 1-1 in the top of the second on the first home run of the season by senior left fielder Robert Jolly of Myrtle Beach, who played for his father at Carolina Forest High and played at Springs Brooks Stadium for the first time.
“It was good to be back home,” said Jolly, who went 1-for-2 with two walks and is batting .290 on the season. “I got to see a lot of people I haven’t seen since I’ve been at Clemson, so it was just a good feeling to have some support here tonight and it just felt good to put a good game together for some friends and family.”
Both teams started freshmen on the mound in the mid-week contest. Clemson’s Holt Jones entered the game 2-0 with a 1.04 earned-run average, having allowed four hits and a run in 8 2/3 innings, and allowed three earned runs on three hits and three walks in just 1 1/3 innings on Tuesday.
CCU’s Anthony Simonelli (3-1) was coming off a 10-run, two-inning outing against Connecticut last week and got off to a shaky start, hitting leadoff batter Logan Davidson and walking Seth Beer on four pitches.
But he got out of the early threat by striking out the next two batters looking at curveballs and enticing a weak grounder, and pitched four strong innings, allowing one run, two hits and a walk in four innings. Sophomore Davie Inman, a transfer from Florida Southwestern junior college, pitched three hitless innings of relief to hold CCU’s lead into the eighth.