June 12, 2010

By John Clayton
Special to NCAA.com

CLEMSON, S.C. -- A familiar formula of opportunistic hitting and stellar defense helped Alabama to a 5-4 victory over host Clemson in Saturday night's NCAA Division I Baseball Super Regional matchup at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

With the win, the Crimson Tide takes a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series that will continue Sunday at 7 p.m. (ESPN). The winner moves on to the College World Series.

"That's what we've been able to do this backend run -- take advantage of mistakes when we're given them," said Alabama head coach Mitch Gaspard. "On the flip side, we haven't given a lot of opportunities due to errors to our opponents."

The Crimson Tide (42-23) played its fourth-straight errorless game, while taking advantage of a pair of Clemson errors that led to four unearned runs in the third inning. Alabama has now won 10 of its last 12 games.

Clemson third-baseman John Hinson booted a routine ground ball from Alabama left fielder John Kelton that kept the inning alive for the Tide.

Right fielder Andrew Miller and designated hitter Brett Booth followed with back-to-back singles. Miller's single to left field scored John Rutledge, who reached on a fielding error by starting pitcher Casey Harman while attempting a sacrifice bunt, and first baseman Clay Jones, who was hit by a pitch.

Booth's single plated Kelton as Alabama extended its lead to 5-0.

"The key to the game was that third inning," said Clemson head coach Jack Leggett. "We had that one tough inning and gave them an extra out.

"They played the defense they had to play from there."

The Tigers (41-23) answered quickly with three runs in the bottom of the third on RBI singles from Mike Freeman and Brad Miller and a sacrifice fly to left field from Jeff Schaus, who went 3-for-4 at the plate before being ejected in the ninth for arguing a called third strike.

Clemson added a run when Wilson Boyd scored in the sixth on pinch-hitter Chris Epps' RBI triple down the right-field line, cutting Alabama's lead to 5-4.

Alabama starter Jimmy Nelson (9-3) and two Tide relievers, Jonathan Smart and Jake Smith shut Clemson down the rest of the way. Nelson gave up four earned runs in 6 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking five. He also got an inning-ending double play in the fifth and the Alabama defense turned in another in the eighth.

Smith, who moved to the mound from third base with no outs in the eighth, pitched two scoreless innings to earn his third save of the postseason and sixth of the year. His towering solo home run -- also his third of the postseason -- over left-field stands in the second also gave the Crimson Tide a 1-0 lead.

"It was a change up that stayed up," said Smith of his home run. "That was about as good as I could hit one."

Harman (7-3) took the loss for the Tigers, despite only giving up one earned run in 8 1/3 innings of work in which he struck out nine and walked none.

Alabama was retired in order in each of the final three innings, while the Tigers put runners on base but were unable to get the run they needed to extend the game.

Clemson stranded 12 base runners, including nine over the final five innings. The Tigers left the bases loaded in the fifth and seventh innings.

"We just couldn't get the hit to get the one or two runs we needed," said Freeman, who went 2-for-5 for the Tigers.

Alabama leadoff hitter Taylor Dugas set the table for the Tide, going 4-for-5 and scoring a run. Smith, Miller and designated hitter Brett Booth each went 2-for-4 for Alabama.

Game 2 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2) at Kingsmore Field.

Right-hander Scott Weisman (7-2, 5.13 ERA) will start for Clemson.

Alabama will send southpaw Adam Morgan (7-4, 5-52) to the mound.

"Our backs are against the wall," said Leggett. "Nothing has been easy. Nothing has been handed to us. . . . We would have loved to have won the ballgame, but this is par for the course. The is the way it's been all season long, so now we have to keep battling just like we've been doing. I don't expect anything different now. We have to come back and be tough."

While Clemson hopes for a repeat of last week's performance in the NCAA Regionals when the Tigers were able to bounce back to defeat Auburn by forcing and third and deciding game, Alabama will be nine innings away from making its first CWS appearance since 1999.

"We've been on the other side, too, so we want to keep focused," said Gaspard. "There will not be any letting up on our side. It's not so much about them now, but about us and how we treat this.

"It's desperation for one side, but it's opportunity for the other."