**By Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**
South Carolina head coach Chad Holbrook knows his team faces a major challenge this weekend against a Clemson team that features the best player in college baseball.
Tiger first baseman Seth Beer hit .369 with 18 home runs and 70 RBI as a freshman last year to win the Dick Howser Award as national player of the year.
"He's obviously the best hitter in college baseball and we've got to be extremely careful," Holbrook said. "If we have to walk him four or five times, we'll walk him four or five times."
But what makes the matchup against the two national powers so intriguing is that Beer might be facing the best pitching staff in college baseball.
South Carolina features potential first-round draft picks in starters Clark Schmidt and Will Crowe, plus sophomore Adam Hill, who went 7-0 as a freshman last season. Schmidt is 1-0 with an ERA of 0.69 in his first two starts while Crowe is 2-0 with a 0.79 ERA. They have combined for 30 strikeouts. Hill is 0-2, but has given up just two runs and has 13 strikeouts in 12 innings. South Carolina's top four relievers — including another potential first-rounder in Tyler Johnson — have been lights out, combining for three wins and 36 strikeouts in 28.5 innings.
"I am not worried about Clarke or Will or Adam, or our bullpen," Holbrook said. "They have pitched in some big moments. Their guys have pitched in some big moments, too. It's going to come down to who pitches a little bit better and who makes the plays behind them and who gets those big two-out hits with runners in scoring position."
Clemson (6-2) and South Carolina (6-3) have been mirror images of each other so far, with Clemson holding a slight edge in hitting and South Carolina in pitching. Clemson is hitting .302 as a team, South Carolina .280. Clemson has scored 49 runs, South Carolina 45. Each team has 83 hits, while South Carolina holds a 7-5 edge in home runs.
South Carolina has a team ERA of 2.56, Clemson 2.96. Opponents are hitting .190 against South Carolina, .239 against Clemson.
Schmidt squares off against left-hander Charlie Barnes in Game 1 at Clemson Friday night, while Crowe faces left-hander Pat Krall Saturday afternoon in Greenville. Sophomores Adam Hill and Alex Eubanks face each other in Columbia Sunday.
Holbrook's biggest worry is Beer, who has two home runs and six RBI in his first eight games and has been walked 11 times.
"We have to limit the opportunities for him to put the bat on the ball," he said. "If that means throwing it in the dirt or throwing it to the backstop, that's what we'll do."
"They have a good lineup and … obviously, we all know Beer," said Schmidt, who beat Clemson 8-1 in Game 1 last year. "They have some guys who can make an impact with one swing, so we are going to keep from giving them a ball to drive. We want to try get a lot of ground balls and get outs."
Schmidt, who throws in the mid-90s, gave up a hit to Beer last year, and then struck him out twice. He will attack him the way he does every hitter.
"My outlook every time I face a hitter, whether I have faced him before or not, it's going to change every time, because you don't want them to see the same things every time," Schmidt said. "I know how to get him out, and I also know how he can get a hit off me."
Schmidt's challenge will be trying to pitch deep into the game and save his bullpen for Games 2 and 3.
"When you have a weekend like this, you've got to have as many arms as you can get, so my job is to go out there and go seven or eight strong," Schmidt said.
While South Carolina's pitching has been dominant, the hitting has been slow to develop as Holbrook tinkers with his lineup. The Gamecocks erupted for three home runs in an 8-4 win against Appalachian State Tuesday. Catcher Chris Cullen hit his first home run, while newcomer Jacob Olson hit two. Junior Alex Destino has hit two so far.
"I love the way we played on Tuesday and the way we swung the bat and the balance that that lineup had," Holbrook said.
The Gamecocks have lost two one-run games to UNC Greensboro and Kansas State and Game 3 of a three-game set with Wright State, a team that won two of three against Clemson.
While the offense has struggled hitting with runners in scoring position, Holbrook likes what he's seen so far.
"I have no problems with my team," he said. "We have played a challenging schedule. We had one or two games we kinda let slip away, but it's a long season and we are still trying to find out who we are.
"But I like the makeup of our team, I like the way our team is built and I think we have a high ceiling to be a great team. We might seem a little bit of a work in progress right now, but I think down the road this could be a special team."
Holbrook expects to learn a lot about his team during a heated rivalry this weekend.
"You just hope they can keep their composure and handle adversity," he said. "We talk about stuff like that all the time. Everything is not going to go our way. There is going to be a moment in time when we have to handle a tough play, a bad play, a bad call or whatever. That's just part of baseball.
"I'm going to learn a lot about them. Emotions will be high so when something bad happens and adversity strikes. I'm looking forward to seeing how we respond to that, because it's coming."