COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s been four decades since an NCAA baseball tournament did not include either Clemson or South Carolina.
This year, the Palmetto State’s two powerhouse programs are having a tough time making a case for an invitation to the 64-team field.
With little more than two weeks until the NCAA playoff teams are announced, the Tigers and Gamecocks are on the outside looking in. It’s a troubling place for the two proud programs that have combined for 10 College World Series trips since 2000.
Clemson (25-24) stands 66th in the latest RPI rankings put out by the NCAA. South Carolina, once a top-five team this season, stands 74th.
The Tigers have dropped five of nine Atlantic Coast Conference series this season. The Gamecocks have lost six of their eight series against Southeastern Conference teams.
“Sometimes baseball is a very cruel game and we’re seeing that right now,” Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook said after a 3-0 loss to Auburn last Sunday, leading to another lost series.
The task for the two teams now is to finish the regular season strong and advance deep into their respective conference tournaments — should they even qualify — to give the NCAA selection committee something to consider.
It won’t be easy.
The Tigers close the year at top-10 Florida State while the Gamecocks finish at No. 3 Texas A&M and at home against No. 1 LSU.
“Obviously, we know what’s left in the league and that task is a tall one,” Holbrook said. “All you can do is strap it on and go back to work.”
Clemson and South Carolina have been two of the Southeast’s most consistent and honored programs over the years.
Since 1973, when neither the Tigers nor Gamecocks made the NCAA playoffs, Clemson has gone to the national tournament 34 times, with 10 of those trips ending in the College World Series. South Carolina has made 30 NCAA tournaments with 11 CWS appearances, including national titles in 2010 and 2011.
Clemson has made 27 of the past 28 NCAA tournaments, missing only in 2008. South Carolina has made 15 straight NCAA appearances.
Since that run, things recently have trended the wrong way.
Hall of Fame Clemson coach Jack Leggett came under fire a year ago from some Tiger fans concerned over the program’s slide. Since playing in the 2010 College World Series, Clemson has not gotten past the tournament’s opening round. Athletic director Dan Radakovich gave Leggett a list of changes to implement.
Instead, the Tigers have struggled to keep things together. A concern has been midweek contests, where Clemson is 6-8 since the beginning of March.
Holbrook was the top assistant for coach-turned-athletic director Ray Tanner for the title-winning teams at South Carolina. He was a natural successor after Tanner’s promotion, yet has gotten heat from fans who don’t like falling short. The Gamecocks lost a home NCAA regional last year for the first time since 1981.
Holbrook, in his third season as head coach, received a two-year contract extension earlier in the year.
The issue at South Carolina is at the plate, where the team ranks dead last in the SEC with a .251 batting average.
The Gamecocks have scored five runs or fewer in 14 of their past 15 games, during which time they’ve gone 5-10.
“Hitting is contagious,” Holbrook says, “and that goes both ways.”
The Gamecocks need to find a solution quickly if they hope to keep pace with Texas A&M and LSU, the league’s top two hitting teams, the next two weekends.
South Carolina infielder DC Arendas thinks that possible.
“Have we played our best? No, we haven’t,” But we think the next time we step on the field, we’re going to play our best,” Arendas said. “We’ve got the right mindset, we’ve just got to execute.”