Friday, May 31, 2013

What's at Stake in the Armpit - Take Two!

Last year, there was a sense of dread as Clemson rolled south out of the Promised Land and into Sodom & Gomorrah, aka the Armpit, aka Columbia. This year, the dread has been replaced by anger. Anger at ourselves for missing out on being a regional host. Anger at Jack for coming up short in big games. Anger at Swofford & the ACC for the debacle known as the round-robin format. And anger at the NCAA for sending Clemson back to Columbia.

But it's not just the upstate folk with a different sing in their head. The locals themselves are a little shaky, and the result is a slower, quieter tune as they enter the postseason without Mr. Roth, their ace, or Mr. Tanner, their fearless leader. Last year South Carolina was riding the coattails of back to back National Championships and carried that swagger all the way to a third straight championship game appearance. And not only did South Carolina know they were strong, so did everyone else - including Clemson and Jack Leggett. And in the end, that confidence was too much for Clemson's streaky bats to overcome.

But this year feels different. Neither team finished the year with much panache, and neither team won a game in their conference tournament, and neither team has been swinging the bat very effectively. If anything, both teams enter with a slight confidence problem. Unfortunately for Clemson, playing in the armpit will only help to speed the Gamecock's rehab process.

And with both state schools sporting plenty of issues, the opportunity for a lower seed team to steal this regional becomes more and more plausible.

So, knowing it's potentially anyone's regional, let's take a look at what's at stake, who has the most to gain, the most to lose, and what will probably happen.

What's at Stake?
USC:
If they win they will most likely travel to National #1 Seeded UNC, which looks pretty sharp, especially after outlasting Clemson and NC State over a combined 32 innings in the ACC Tournament. They seem to have the magic South Carolina so often carried over the last 3 years. On the flip side, they are capable of being beaten, something Clemson should have done in their second game. And with good pitching and timely hitting, even top seeded UNC could struggle over a short 3 game series.

For USC, winning their host regional would advance them to their 11th overall Super Regional, all within the past 14 years.

But more than the stats, advancing through their host regional, and sending Clemson home again, would mean Chad Holbrook is keeping the momentum, and standard, Ray Tanner established during his tenure. And it could set USC up for another run to Omaha.

Clemson:
If Clemson should win the Columbia regional, they would be forced to travel to Chapel Hill, to play a team they went 1-3 against this season (though it should have been 2-2). If for some reason, UNC should lose their home regional, Clemson would most likely host the Super's.

By winning the Regional, Clemson would reach the Super Regionals for the 10th time in 15 years.

And similar to USC, beating their rival means more than the stats. Clemson would exorcise some demons, turn the tables on South Carolina, and potentially shift the momentum in this series. And advancing to the Super's would set Clemson up for a special season in 2013-2014.

Liberty:
Should Liberty win the regional, they would also be forced to travel, unless a major upset in Chapel Hill occurs.

This is Liberty's fourth regional appearance, where they've gone 1-6 all time. Winning the regional would advance them past the first grouping for the first time, and would bring them, and their conference, great national exposure.

It would also validate some of Liberty's recent regular season success against big name schools.

Saint Louis:
For Saint Louis, winning the Columbia regional would bring about large parties and old videos of their 1965 team that advanced to Omaha. It would also send Clemson and South Carolina down to the pits as both would spend the offseason answering questions about their team and coach.

Who Has the Most to Gain?

Recently, USC has owned this series, as every USC fan will remind you. But this weekend offers Clemson an opportunity they haven't had in quite a while: a chance to flip the tables back on South Carolina and begin to bring this series back to the upstate. With Tanner leaving and Holbrook stepping in, some of the aura of USC baseball is gone. Additionally, with the way USC finished the season, they are by no means guaranteed of walking through this regional.

But even if South Carolina is able to hold serve at home and send Clemson home for the summer, I'm not sure how much difference it would make in the grand scheme of things. Nothing changes locally as USC still maintains control of the state, Jack continues to struggle in big games, and the transition between Tanner and Holbrook is complete.

The biggest question for Clemson will be whether their young crop of freshman are ready for the big stage of tournament baseball. If the ACC Tournament was any indication, they've got some learning to do. But hopefully the difference between the ACC Tournament and this regional will be like the difference a football teams sees between weeks 1 and 2.

If so, Clemson has a chance to make some noise, and going forward, maybe regain control of this rivalry, and this state.

While Liberty and Saint Louis winning the regional would be a great story, I'm not sure it would have the lasting effect a Clemson win would. And with that, Clemson has the most to gain while trompsing through the armpit.

Who has the Most to Lose?

While Clemson has the most to gain, it only makes sense that South Carolina has the most to lose. They have spent the last decade building a really solid baseball program under Ray Tanner. A program that has the locals in a frenzy and spending money at Wal-Mart they have no business spending. But the problem with taking a relatively middle level program to the top is how hard it is to keep it there. Just look at Clemson football under Hatfield, or Miami football post Butch Davis, or UCLA basketball post Wooden, etc...

If South Carolina limps through their own regional, it could have major implications on this program and fan base - implications that could set it back to pre-Tanner levels. This is not to say they won't still be good, they just won't have that "it" factor like they do now. And to combine that with being sent home by your rival - someone you've completely owned over that time, could only speed that process up.

Clemson has high expectations for itself, but in some regards, they've already exceeded those expectations by doing as well as they have. To continue winning would only further make their fan base feel great and propel them to great things next season.

What Will Probably Happen:
Clemson fans have a tendency to be rough on their boys. To get down on them a bit when things don't go our way. But as I said earlier, this week feels different. There's an anger in the air - one that if Clemson can properly channel, could pay them great dividends.

But what Clemson needs to do first, before they can dream of celebrating in Five Points, is to score some runs. If they can get off to a fast start against Liberty, it could be a great sign for the weekend. If they struggle early, pray for the pitching, or we could have another ACC Tournament type performance on our hands.

Both Clemson and South Carolina look to be saving their aces for Saturday, and it should be a good game, assuming they both make it. Earlier this season, Montgomery shut Clemson down for 8 innings in Clemson, while Gossett gave up just one earned run.

For Clemson to win, they need to do three things: grab an early lead to keep the pressure on South Carolina (and to stay away from Webb), play great defense, and be smart, but aggressive on the base paths. If Clemson can do those things, they have a chance give the armpit the Steven Gacria treatment. If they don't, then history may repeat itself once again.

Regardless, I don't think anyone comes out of this regional unscathed, which ultimately may play into Clemson's hands as they not only have a deep bullpen, but one that can log solid innings.

Also, because of the buildup for a potential Clemson-Carolina matchup, don't be surprised to see one of the lower seeds pull an upset on Friday, forcing a really good team to fight through the loser's bracket.

My Prediction:
Look for both Clemson and South Carolina to both win way too-close for comfort games against Liberty and Saint Louis Friday, setting up the desired rematch Saturday evening; however, the pitching matchup does not bode well for Clemson and they fall to South Carolina Saturday night. Clemson then works their way through the loser's bracket against Saint Louis to earn a rematch with South Carolina Sunday afternoon. They are able to steal that win, setting up a winner take-all night game.

And for that game, it's just too hard to tell, but hopefully Clemson finish the 2-game sweep and turn the tides on South Carolina.

Good luck to all teams, and like I tell everyone visiting Columbia - "Be careful and try to stay safe!"


*All photos by Orange & White (orangeandwhite.com)

5 comments:

  1. kiss the rings

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No thanks - I think the guy below already tried...

      Thanks for swinging by!

      Delete
  2. after reading this, my eyes bled, my mouth felt full of shit

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Look man, don't blame me, you're the one that tried to "Kiss the Rings"...

      Remember - nothing good ever happens at 4:19 am...

      Delete
  3. Mad ? You know the saying "It's better to be pissed off than to be pissed on" or how about "Don't go away mad just go away" PLEASE

    ReplyDelete

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