South Carolina battles back, but Clemson takes series opener in extra innings, 5-4

Ethan Petry came up at the moment you want Ethan Petry at the plate. Down two. One out. Ninth inning. Runner on third. Clemson in the opposing dugout. Over 9,000 folks packed into Segra Park in Columbia.

The towering 6-foot-4, 235-pound sophomore walked to the plate and every person wearing garnet thought about a home run. (They’re lying if they say they didn’t.) And then it happened. Petry caught all of a 1-2 breaking ball and sent it the other way. Back. Back. Sailing over the right-field fence. Home run. Tie game.

“He came up big in a moment. That’s what we talk to our guys (about),” South Carolina head coach Mark Kingston said. “When you get in a big moment, own it.”

The only shame for the Gamecocks (8-2) is there wasn’t another runner on base. Because three innings later, with the game still tied at 4, Clemson (8-1) flipped the script back in its favor. Junior Andrew Ciufo blasted a walk-off home run to deep center field to give the Tigers a 5-4 win in the 12th inning.

“When two heavyweights go at it, they trade punches,” Clemson head coach Erik Bakich said.

It was the first hit South Carolina reliever Garrett Gainey had given up in 3.2 innings of work. Gainey, a transfer from Liberty, was stifling Clemson’s batters with a rising fastball, striking out a half-dozen Tigers then strutting off the mound like a firecracker, screaming as he looked into the Clemson dugout.

“He pitched his a-- off,” Kingston said of Gainey. “We were one swing, one run short.”

It looked like South Carolina had that run in the bag six innings earlier. Parker Noland’s ground ball was blistered to open space and Gamecocks junior Talmadge LeCroy was sprinting home. The scoreboard operator had his finger at the ready.

Then, who else, Ciufo appeared like a bolt of lightning. The field was clear — then it wasn’t. Ciufo, Clemson’s junior shortstop, took a few steps to his right then went full Superman, laying out to stop Noland’s grounder. He popped up and fired a bullet to first, ending the sixth inning.

“We just love opportunities to make cool plays like that,” Ciufo said.

For a bizarre start to this year’s South Carolina-Clemson rivalry series, Saturday delivered. Friday’s game was postponed due to rain with a makeup date to be announced.

And Friday’s weather did not just affect Friday’s game. It played a massive part in Saturday’s contest.

You see, South Carolina decided to stick with scheduled-Friday starter Eli Jones. Clemson meanwhile scrapped its Friday starter and kept to its schedule, sending lefty Tristan Smith out to the mound on Saturday.

One could argue the game was decided with that decision.

Jones, who came into the afternoon with a 1.00 ERA, struggled against the Tigers lineup. He made it just 4.1 innings, allowing a pair of earned runs and three times as many hits as he had allowed all season (nine).

“Eli’s our best guy and this was game one of the series, so we decided to go with our best guy,” said Kingston, before adding Sunday’s game will likely feature both weekend starters, Dylan Eskew and Roman Kimball.

Jones also allowed two doubles, both to the same guy: Clemson leadoff man Cam Cannarella. There are few better hitters in college baseball, at least guys better at just getting the barrel on the ball. He doesn’t walk much. Doesn’t strike out much. Doesn’t get out much. Not a fun guy to face.

He led off the game with a double. Then, with the game still scoreless in the fourth, Cannarella lifted a tailing fly ball over the head of USC left fielder Kennedy Jones for a double. Two runs scored.

Clemson pitcher Tristan Smith (18) reacts after a striekout during the Gamecocks’ game against Clemson at Segra Park in Columbia on Saturday, March 2, 2024.
Clemson pitcher Tristan Smith (18) reacts after a striekout during the Gamecocks’ game against Clemson at Segra Park in Columbia on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

Meanwhile, on the mound for Clemson was the sophomore Smith, who had to change nothing in his routine to pitch on Saturday. The result? The 6-foot-2 Boiling Springs native tossed the best game of his young college career.

In five innings of work, he struck out nine Gamecocks while allowing just three hits, a walk and hit three batters. His one big mistake came in the fifth, when struggling Gamecocks hitter Will Tippett — who entered Saturday hitting .160 without an extra-base hit — smacked a solo home run to left.

Aside from that, the Clemson pitchers seemed keen to ring up a strikeout or two any time trouble loomed.

That, or their defense would bail him out. First baseman Jacob Hinderleider would pick a ball at first. Catcher Jimmy Obertop would throw out a runner. Or Ciufo would chuck his body to the ground and make one of the best plays you’ll see from a collegiate shortstop.

“I think you had two top-15, maybe two top-10 teams going at it today,” said Kingston. “And, look, one pitch was the difference.”

The Gamecocks, though, had their chances. Before Petry dug in in the ninth, the Gamecocks were 1 for 17 with runners on base Saturday and 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position.

Then the sophomore hit his 27th home run in 73 career games. And it was all for naught.

About Sunday’s South Carolina-Clemson game

Where: Doug Kingsmore Stadium, Clemson

When: 2 p.m.

Watch: Streaming only via ACC Network Extra (Jeff Morris, William Qualkinbush)

Weather: Mostly sunny, with a high near 69