COLUMBIA — Adam Matthews is finally in the middle of things during South Carolina’s latest NCAA tournament run.
The Gamecocks’ senior outfielder had an RBI single in a three-run first inning, and South Carolina won its NCAA regional and its 19th tournament game in a row with a 4-3 victory over Clemson on Sunday.
Matthews, who missed last year’s run to the Gamecocks’ second consecutive College World Series title with a hamstring problem, caught the final out on Brad Felder’s flyball to the warning track and was voted regional MVP.
South Carolina (42-17) won its third regional in a row and will play host to the winner of the Charlottesville Regional in next weekend’s best-of-three super regional.
“The past couple of years have been frustrating not being able to be part of the postseason,” Matthews said. “This year, it’s an honor to play in front of our fans at home and be able to contribute in a big way.”
Matthews drove in three runs in a 7-0 win over Manhattan on Friday and had a two-run homer against the Tigers in South Carolina’s come-from-behind, 12-inning 5-4 victory Saturday.
On Sunday, Matthews helped the Gamecocks jump on tiring starter David Haselden (4-2) in a three-run first. Joey Pankake opened with a triple and scored on Evan Marzilli’s sacrifice fly. Matthews’ hit brought home Christian Walker before Connor Bright’s double scored Matthews as South Carolina moved in front 3-0.Chase Vergason’s RBI single in the sixth made it 4-0 before Clemson rallied to make it close.
Freshman Jordan Montgomery (5-1) went 6⅔ solid innings, retiring 12 in a row during one stretch.
Tyler Webb, called “soft” by a Clemson player last year, got the final seven outs for his third save.
Thomas Brittle had an RBI double and Phil Pohl a run-scoring groundout to third to cut South Carolina’s lead to 4-2 in the sixth. The Tigers made things interesting in the ninth when Spencer Kieboom’s single to right brought home Jay Baum and sent up Felder, who hammered a ball out of the stadium on Saturday. He drove this one a long way, too, but not so that Matthews couldn’t run it down.
“I couldn’t hear Evan (Marzilli), saying, ‘You got it. You got it. You got it.’ It would’ve been bad if he was saying, ‘I got it. I got it. I got it.’”
Webb brushed off last year’s insult by former Tiger Will Lamb as motivation. Still, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner knew this was a game Webb wanted to finish.
“I’m good. Don’t come get me,” Tanner said Webb told him before the ninth.
Clemson hoped Felder might have enough on the last out, but knew it would come up short.
“It’s a pretty deflating feeling,” said Clemson third baseman Richie Shaffer, a junior likely to go in the first round of Monday’s MLB draft. “You watch it sailing through the air and hope he trips on a rock or something.”
South Carolina’s celebration was simple and without too much emotion despite it being the fourth win in five games with Clemson this season.
“It was another one of those great baseball games we tend to have with Clemson,” Tanner said.
The Gamecocks were a whisker away from the loser’s bracket, trailing the Tigers 4-2 entering the eighth inning on Saturday’s game. But a run each in the eighth and ninth send that contest to extras and LB Dantzler’s RBI single off the wall gave them the 5-4 win.
South Carolina appeared ready to blow this one open after its first inning outburst until the Tigers, who needed a 5-3 victory over Coastal Carolina earlier Sunday simply to stay alive, settled down under reliever Jonathan Meyer, who limited the Gamecocks to five hits the final 8 1/3 innings.
It was just enough to prevail against Clemson (35-28), again. The Gamecocks have won 18 of the last 25 in the series with their state rivals.
“We’ve got to get one hit better, one pitch better, one more piece of execution better,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “That’s the difference.”
That seems to be what all of South Carolina’s postseason opponents need to do. The Gamecocks haven’t lost an NCAA tournament game since their opener to Oklahoma at the 2010 College World Series. They haven’t lost a home tournament game since the 2002 super regional series against Miami, a string of 22 consecutive wins.
It’s quite an edge, both the Clemson and South Carolina sides agreed, for the Gamecocks to play at home, where they enjoyed their 13th sellout of the season and second against Clemson in as many days.
“Being able to play at home, the fans are great,” Matthews said. “It’s been a heck of a weekend and hopefully we can continue.”