Henderson scores

Outfielder Elijah Henderson scores a run in the first inning of the rubber match of the 2020 Palmetto Series at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, S.C.

With the Cincinnati Bearcats firmly in the rearview mirror, the Clemson baseball team turns its attention to its in-state rival, the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Tigers and Gamecocks both enter the series undefeated, and South Carolina enters with a chip on its shoulder, having won the series in 2019 but dropping 2020’s series prior to the remainder of the 2020 season being canceled due to COVID-19.

The Tigers won games one and three, both campus site games, last season. The Tigers one-hit the Gamecocks last season in game one at Founders Park, with their only hit a solo home run given up by freshman pitcher Geoffrey Gilbert in the ninth inning. The Tigers are without Sam Weatherly, who threw seven innings and struck out 11 batters in that game. The Colorado Rockies drafted Weatherly in the third round of the shortened 2020 MLB draft. The Collegiate Baseball All-American signed with the Rockies, bringing his Clemson career to a close following the 2020 season.

The opener of this year’s series marks the first time the Tigers and Gamecocks are set to meet in the “big three” men’s sports this academic year, with the football and men’s basketball games not taking place. “I don’t think there’s any more weight on it because of the football and basketball situation,” Tigers’ Head Coach Monte Lee said during his Tuesday press conference. “It’s always a big deal.”

This season’s Friday night starter, redshirt sophomore Davis Sharpe, reflected Weatherly in his first start of the season, recording nine strikeouts in five innings on the mound. However, the South Carolina offense, which totaled 36 hits in the Gamecocks’ three games against Dayton, will not be as easy to sit down as the Bearcats’ lineup. 

Gilbert, who picked up the save for his two innings of work in Columbia last season, recorded four strikeouts against the eight batters he faced in his only outing of the 2021 season thus far. The Bishop England High School alum returned to his promising 2020 form in his appearance against Cincinnati.

The Gamecocks are led on offense by designated hitter Wes Clarke, who hit three home runs in as many games against Dayton. Clarke had seven hits in 10 at-bats. Collegiate Baseball named Clarke a National Player of the Week, and the SEC named him Co-Player of the Week for his nine-RBI effort against the Flyers.

Three Gamecocks ended their opening series hitting .500 or better: the aforementioned Clarke, outfielder Brady Allen (.556) and catcher Colin Burgess (.500). An additional four Gamecock hitters are batting above .300.

Clarke put another three balls in the seats on Tuesday against Winthrop, bringing his total on the season to six home runs.

This year’s neutral site game returns to Greenville’s Fluor Field after taking place at Segra Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies, last season.

Redshirt junior Mat Clark picked up the win in last season’s Sunday matchup after giving up just one hit in three innings of work. Clark walked one batter on his way to his second win of the season and reclaimed the Palmetto Series for the Tigers. Clark is set to start on the mound for the Tigers on Saturday after making his first appearance of the year out of the bullpen.

Getting the ball for the Gamecocks will be senior pitcher Brannon Jordan. Jordan walked four batters in as many innings against Dayton, giving up two hits along the way. The Cowley County Community College product allowed four runs, three of which were earned, in the appearance. Last season, Jordan had a 1.71 ERA with two wins in the shortened season. Despite starting on the mound and throwing five innings for the Gamecocks last season at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, he received a no-decision for his one-run, one-hit effort against the Tigers. He allowed five walks in the appearance.

Clemson’s biggest hurdle will be avoiding rallies from the South Carolina offense. Along with the Gamecocks’ 36 hits against Dayton, they recorded 15 against Winthrop on Tuesday night. Tiger pitching, especially Tiger relievers, has been known in the past to let rallies spiral out of control after entering the game from the bullpen. Monte Lee’s squad fixed this problem over the shortened 2020 season and early goings of the 2021 campaign, but time will tell if this is a change in culture for the pitching staff.

Lee made an adjustment to the Tigers’ rotation this weekend to combat the strengths of the South Carolina offense. Instead of planning on throwing two strikeout pitchers on Friday, Sharpe and Clark, Lee is planning for these two to each start a game. The Gamecocks have proven they are able to score runs on teams that pitch to contact, as Clemson’s Saturday and Sunday pitching staff did against Cincinnati.

The series wraps up Sunday at Founders Park. South Carolina leads the all-time series in Columbia 84-69-2.

Clemson’s Sunday starter, Ty Olenchuk, is from Irmo, S.C., and grew up a South Carolina fan. The freshman right-hander recorded two hits and no walks in his first career start against Cincinnati.

Olenchuk reflected on getting the ball Sunday just 17 miles from where he played high school baseball, saying, “I’m facing my hometown rivals now. I used to be a Carolina fan my whole life.”

The Tigers should prepare for a battle late in the weekend, as the South Carolina pitching staff appeared to get better as last weekend progressed, a contrast to Clemson’s performance on the mound. The Gamecocks cut their hits allowed in half from game one to game two against Dayton, going from six to three. Four Gamecocks pitchers allowed just one run on three hits in game three against Dayton.

Redshirt sophomore Kier Meredith was unavailable for the Tigers’ opening series with Cincinnati. Meredith confirmed he is out with a leg injury suffered “two or three weeks ago” and is taking things “day to day.” Coach Lee reflected this sentiment. Meredith recorded seven hits against the Gamecocks last season, including a four-hit performance at Founders Park. The Winston-Salem, N.C., native missed most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons with injuries and was missing from the Tigers' lineup to start the 2021 campaign.

“He’s probably the closest to being able to come back,” said Coach Lee of the redshirt sophomore outfielder. “I would say right now it’s doubtful that [Meredith] will be ready for the weekend. I’m not counting on him being able to start this weekend.”

Coach Lee also confirmed that the following injured Tigers will be unavailable this weekend: redshirt sophomore pitcher Keyshawn Askew, catcher and team co-captain Adam Hackenburg and utility player Sam Hall.

The 2021 Reedy River Rivalry kicks off Friday, Feb. 26, at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, as the Tigers host the Gamecocks at 4 p.m.

Update Feb. 26: Due to inclement weather in Clemson, Friday's game has been postponed to May 11 at 6 p.m. The Tigers and Gamecocks are set to still set to play Feb. 27 in Greenville and Feb. 28 in Columbia. The makeup game is still set to be played at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson.

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