National number-one seed Clemson shook off Mississippi State's bid to force a second championship game by scoring three runs in the seventh inning and an insurance score in the eighth to claim a 8-6 decision over the Bulldogs. With the victory the host Tigers (50-14) concluded the Clemson Regional with a 3-0 slate, and advanced to next weekend's NCAA super regional round. State ended the campaign 37-23 after going 2-2 for the Regional.
The rain-delayed contest did not conclude until Tiger reliever Daniel Moskos got a swinging strikeout of rightfielder Mitch Moreland at 12:31 a.m. And even with no Dogs on base and a two-run lead, the host team and 5,617 mostly-home fans at Doug Kingsmore Stadium couldn't entirely relax. They had watched third-seed and designated ‘home' team State shake off three first-inning runs to stay in the game and even grab the lead away with a four-run burst in the bottom of the sixth.
In the end Clemson had a bit too much of everything—timely hitting, fielding, and most of all pitching—to let the Regional last any farther into Monday. And the Bulldogs had to walk away frustrated for the last time this long season.
"It's a weird feeling," senior shortstop Thomas Berkery said. "I thought we played fairly well, we didn't do anything to kill ourselves. I mean they're the number-one seed in the country for the reason. We gave them a run at it."
"Our guys battled hard," Coach Ron Polk said. "But it's tough."
The Dogs deserved some due as well for making it tough on the Tigers. Especially Brett Cleveland. The senior righthander had pitched in 69 games over his four State seasons, but had never started one…until this last contest of his career. It was something of a surprise move, but after four games—including a 12-3 elimination win over Elon earlier Sunday—the closer became a starter.
"I knew going in we were low on pitching," Cleveland said. "In order to win this thing we had to get to tomorrow so I was going to give my best effort and keep us in the game six, seven innings. I did that. We just fell short."
Cleveland did put in six innings, plus one batter. And even when his very first pitch of his very first start was crunched for a leadoff home run the senior kept his veteran head. He battled through eight hits and five runs, all earned, with three strikeouts and two walks. It was first reliever Chad Crosswhite who ended up taking the decision, since State took a lead in the middle of his 1.1 inning stint. The righthander (0-3) was chated with three runs, two earned, on a couple of hits and walked one.
David Kopp, the third of four Tiger arms used, timed his work to get the victory. Kopp (5-1) was able to put out a fire in the sixth after State had grabbed its short-lived lead and allow just one run on a walk and two hits in 1.1 innings. Moskos did the heavy lifting with 2.2 dominating innings, three strikeouts, and no hits to record his 10th save.
Clemson was able to tally 11 hits, three of them doubles and the leadoff shot by Herman Demmick. All of State's seven safeties were singles.
The Tiger order didn't waste any time getting a read on Cleveland as Demmink pulled on his first chance. "It was a fastball-up and the guy just got it," Cleveland said. The drive carried just far enough to clear both the leftfield fence and Jeff Butts' glove, but it counted all the same. With one out Marquez Smith singled past the mound and Tyler Colvin hit safely through the right side for two on. Taylor Harbin followed with a drive to centerfield that Joseph Hunter mis-read; by the time he realized it was going to carry, not drop, he was too late to run down an RBI-double. A fly ball by Andy D'Alessio scored Colvin from third base for a 3-0 lead.
Yet Cleveland didn't rattle. "The first inning was a little momentum on their side, they got the hits and the runs. After that I settled down, I felt good all night with all my pitches."
"It looked like we were going to have to make a move early but he settled down," Polk said. Instead Cleveland was able to get through five more innings with just one more score against him. He retired seven of the next eight opponents. After State got on the board in their second turn the Tigers matched it as with two outs and a runner on third Harbin bunted the first pitch towards third base. Edward Easley was playing regular depth and unable to make any play on the infield-single and RBI.
Cleveland reached 100 pitches in the top of the fifth while stranding a runner at third base on a pop-up to keep it a 4-1 game.
Josh Cribb, CU's undefeated ace (9-0), was held out to pitch the championship game. He tried to overwhelm State instantly, working fast and blowing down two. Berkery wasn't fazed and bounced a single by second bag, and DH Brian LaNinfa worked a walk. Neither scored as CU second baseman Harbin made a great dive, stop, and flip off a Moreland grounder that seemed sure to get through. But at least the Dogs weren't intimidated.
"We're way too veteran to let a little three-spot in the first end the game," Berkery said. "So we played hard throughout." And scored some, too. In the second inning a single and fielder's choice had a runner on base. Butts was able to steal second, then take third and fourth on a couple of Cribb wild pitches.
State got a pair on in the fourth as Hunter bunt-singled and Rea hit safely with one out. Cribb got Easley and Berkery to go after first pitches and fly out, but in the sixth the ace went bust. LaNinfa and Moreland tagged consecutive singles through the same four-hole and McCaskill walked to load the bases with no outs yet.
That was enough to merit a mound change with lefty Ryan Hinson given the challenge. He flunked by hitting Butts and walking Hunter to force in runs, and was yanked for righthander Kopp. Jones still tied the game with a fielder's choice grounder, scoring McCaskill from third while Hunter was forced in the middle for the first out of the inning. So Rea's single through the right side plated Butts to give State its first lead.
And the Dogs could have expanded further, except with two outs CU second-sacker Harbin somehow stopped Berkery's bouncer almost behind the bag and nipped him at first. After getting four runs wanting more might have seemed greedy…
…except the unscored runners were soon reason for regret as Clemson responded and regained the lead. Cleveland was sent back out and two pitches later Demmink was on second after a fly-ball double Butts couldn't quite get to on the sloping track. Crosswhite, well-warmed, was then called in. He couldn't be faulted for a slick sacrifice bunt by Brad Chalk to get the tying runner to third. Even a walk of Smith didn't hurt, directly.
And it was just foul pitcher's luck that on 1-0 Colvin pounded the ball right into the turf…hard enough that it bounced over first base and not right to Jones. Demmink scored and Smith made third base easily, so a fly ball to rightfield by tourney MVP Harbin gave Clemson back the lead, 6-5. It was soon a run larger as McCaskill took a pitchout and threw it by second base to let the stealing Colvin go all the way to third. Andy D'Alessio singled him in before a grounder ended the rally.
"We had a chance," Polk said. "We just had a tough three-spot in the seventh. They get the double and after that two balls that weren't well-hit. But put the ball in play and anything can happen."
Still Tiger pitching wasn't through giving State chances as Kopp walked LaNinfa and Moreland after the stretch. McCaskill bunted both into scoring positions before Moskos could be called in. He made the best of the situation by getting Butts to ground to the second baseman. While it produced an RBI with LaNinfa coming home it was also a second out, so a pop-fly by Hunter ended the inning with Clemson still in front by a run.
And the Tigers made it a two-score cushion in the eighth. With one down Casanova reached on a low throw by Berkery. Carver replaced the luckless Crosswhite, but he plunked Demmink and moved the lead runner up where he could come home on a single by Chalk.
"How many two-run losses can you have in one year?" mused Polk after the last of the year. "We hung in there, but you've got to make all the plays and things have to happen."
The first seven Tigers in their order all had at least one hit and four of them a pair. Six Bulldogs tallied a safety but only leadoff man Rea had a pair. Butts didn't get a hit but managed to drive in two runs and score twice himself.
Clemson will now meet Oral Roberts, winner of the Fayetteville Regional, next weekend in a best-of-three super Regional to be played at DKS. The ACC champions lived up to their national top-seeding by taking care of UNC Ashville 3-0 in their first game, mostly played Saturday miday, then routing second-seed Elon 13-3 the same evening to set up the title game with State. Seven Tigers were on the All-Tournament team including MVP Harbin.
"They're good," Polk said. "I can see why they're a number-one seed. And everybody tells me they're the best Clemson team athletically they've seen."
This certainly was not the best Bulldog team Polk has coached, and after a 18-0 start to the campaign it only went 19-23 in April, May, and June. Yet even with the miserable second-half the players weren't ready to pack it in. They really wanted to force one more game and take their chances.
"I love every one of these guys," said Cleveland. "We came here and wanted to give all we had, and we gave our best effort."