In the driver’s seat: Clemson outlasts Coastal to reach NCAA regional title game

The one-run wins count all the same.

This year’s NCAA Tournament has been intense for the Clemson baseball team, but the Tigers remain unblemished and in the driver’s seat to advance out of their regional and into the super regional round for the first time in 14 years.

Star hitter Cam Cannarella drove in the game-winning run in the top of the ninth inning Saturday and pitcher Austin Gordon recorded a save in the bottom of the frame to push Clemson past Coastal Carolina, 4-3, in a winner’s bracket game.

It was a second straight thriller for the Tigers, who beat High Point on a walk-off run Friday night at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in their opening NCAA Tournament game.

“Luckily for us, the superpower of this team is the believability that we’re gonna do it,” coach Erik Bakich said. “We’ve played so many close games that we’re very comfortable in one-run games. ... I’m proud of our guys.”

On Saturday, the Tigers also got a gem from starting pitcher Aidan Knaak, who broke the team’s single-season strikeout record for a freshman with 100 and allowed just two earned runs with six strikeouts in six innings.

Shortstop Jacob Hinderleider was big, too. He got the scoring runner into position in the top of the ninth with a single to left center and was the first Clemson player to record five hits in an NCAA game since Tigers legend Khalil Greene in 2002.

The Tigers advance to the Sunday regional championship game against either Coastal or High Point, who will play in a loser’s bracket game earlier that day.

With one more win, Clemson, the tournament’s No. 6 overall seed, is off to the super regional round for the first time under Bakich and first since 2010.

“We know the job’s not done and we need to finish it out tomorrow,” Bakich said.

Coastal Carolina’s Sam Antonacci (10) watches his home run against Clemson on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Clemson, S.C.
Coastal Carolina’s Sam Antonacci (10) watches his home run against Clemson on Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Clemson, S.C.

Game recap

Clemson third baseman Blake Wright (who scored the walk-off run during Friday’s win over High Point) opened the scoring Saturday by driving in a run via sac fly in the top of the first inning.

Leading 1-0, the Tigers got their first true chance to blow the game open two innings later when All-ACC hitter Cannarella stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the third against Coastal Carolina starter Henry Weycker.

Cannarella popped one to center field, but a Chanticleers outfielder made an excellent sliding catch to get him out and limit the damage. Right fielder Alden Mathes scored on the sac fly, but Coastal turned a slick double play to strand two Clemson runners on base the very next at-bat.

The Chanticleers got on the board in the bottom of the third on third baseman Sam Antonacci’s solo home run to right field and tied the game 2-2 with a sacrifice bunt RBI against Knaak, who’d pitched well all night but found himself in a jam in the bottom of the sixth inning with runners on first and third and no outs.

After Coastal Carolina’s Blake Barthol reached home, Clemson escaped the inning with two more outs after a wild sequence in which Tigers second baseman Jarren Purify tagged out a runner at second and then chased down a runner trying to steal first base behind him (a critical defensive play in a low-scoring game).

After Weycker left the game for Coastal, Cannarella put Clemson back up 3-2 in the top of the seventh inning with a well-placed RBI single up the middle.

But the Chanticleers’ Zach Beach, who entered the game with a team-high 16 home runs, crushed the first pitch he saw from Tigers reliever Lucas Mahlstedt into deep right field for a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Just like that, it was back to 3-3.

After Clemson went three up, three down in the top of the eighth, Coastal Carolina got a runner on base via walk in the bottom of the inning.

That prompted Bakich to pull Mahlstedt after just 1.1 innings in favor of freshman Drew Titsworth, Clemson’s third pitcher of the night.

But Titsworth faced just one batter, intentionally walking him, before Bakich brought in a fourth pitcher, freshman Jacob McGovern. (Bakich said postgame his pitching coach, Jimmy Bellanger, liked the specific matchup between McGovern and the Coastal hitter at the plate.)

In a high-pressure situation (runners on first and second and two outs), McGovern delivered and got the third out Clemson needed, blanking Coastal in the frame and prompting a roar from a crowd of 6,406.

Cannarella delivered the go-ahead run shortly afterward with his sac fly to deep left field, which scored Mathes and put Clemson up 4-3 late (and nearly left the park).

Gordon, Clemson’s fifth pitcher of the night, handled the rest.

“Very hard-fought game, very proud of my team,” Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore, who’s retiring after the conclusion of the season after 28 seasons, said postgame. “Game of baseball, man. ... I really didn’t feel like they outplayed us. Just one of those games where they were one run better.”

By virtue of those two one-run wins, Clemson finds itself in a prime situation: Win one more game Sunday, and advance to its first super regional since 2010.

Hinderleider said competing in front of packed ballparks of 6,000-plus fans, as the Tigers have already done twice this weekend and will do again Sunday, was a “huge” part of his decision to commit to the school as a transfer from Davidson.

“Talking to Coach Bakich, it was really easy to see how much it to the community and the school,” he said. “Succeeding in games this like so far, it’s been awesome.”

NCAA schedule: Clemson baseball game today

Who: Clemson vs. Coastal Carolina

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson

TV: TBD (Streaming on ESPN+)