Baseball America weekend preview

The Carolinas offer more than just Duke-UNC this weekend. Clemson and South Carolina, two of baseball's best, are set to renew their rivalry.

Updated: March 3, 2006, 4:21 PM ET
By Will Kimmey | Baseball America

There's a lot of familiarity for Jack Leggett this year.

His Clemson Tigers are ranked No. 1, a spot in which they spent seven weeks during the 2002 season -- the last time they advanced to the College World Series. The batting order features eight of the same names it did a year ago, when Clemson went 43-23 and fell one game shy of the CWS, and most of the pitching staff returns as well.

And there's also that other constant for Leggett: South Carolina. Clemson faces its in-state rival this weekend, with a road game Saturday and a home game Sunday.

A Friday night game at College of Charleston comes first for Clemson, but it's apparent how much the next two games mean, as Leggett plans on holding all three of his weekend starters back for the two games against the Gamecocks and going with a midweek arm in Charleston.

Top 25 Schedule
• No. 1 Clemson at College of Charleston, at/vs. No. 9 South Carolina
• Rutgers at No. 2 Georgia Tech
• Purdue at No. 3 North Carolina
• No. 7 Cal State Fullerton at No. 4 Rice
• Texas A&M at No. 5 Florida
• Oakland at No. 6 Tennessee
• Arkansas State at No. 8 Mississippi State
• Brown at No. 10 Florida State
• No. 12 Pepperdine at San Diego State
• Nevada at No. 13 Oregon State
• No. 14 Texas at Nevada-Las Vegas
• Manhattan at No. 15 Tulane
• Baylor at No. 16 Long Beach State
• Houston at No. 17 LSU
• UCLA at No. 18 North Carolina State
• No. 19 Stanford at California
• Wisconsin-Milwaukee at No. 20 Missouri
• Florida Atlantic at No. 21 TCU
• Illinois-Chicago at No. 22 Mississippi
• Kent State at No. 24 Winthrop
• No. 25 San Diego at Cal Poly
There's no middle ground in the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry. Unlike a lot of other rivalries in college sports where the fans are more into the antics than those actually participating in the games, the tension between the coaching staffs and players in this series is palpable.

"Oh yeah, there's no doubt about that," Leggett said. "It's a big game for everybody. It's definitely a rivalry; you can sugarcoat it any way you want, but it's a game that's important to everybody. You just want to play well. "There's a lot of fanfare about it. I'm not sure there's a bigger in-state rivalry around. You'd have to show me one. I know there's some others than claim to be, but when you sell out both places and people can't get tickets …"

This weekend's series is important enough that Leggett doesn't hesitate when asked if two of his recent injury holdouts will return to the lineup. Sophomore second baseman Taylor Harbin, limited to one at-bat because of a balky hamstring, and sophomore right-hander David Kopp, who has been resting a sore shoulder, both will take the field this weekend.

Harbin's presence could prove most important. He's Clemson's top right-handed hitter, and was the only righty among the first six batters in the Tigers' Opening Day lineup. And that could prove important against a South Carolina team that will start lefties Arik Hempy (0-1, 0.00 ERA) and Forrest Beverly (3-0, 3.38).

Clemson's two lowest offensive outputs of the season have come against lefties: A 3-0 win against James Madison and starter Greg Nesbitt, and a 3-2 loss to Mercer and Shawn Barrett. The Tigers did tag Mercer lefty Hunter Abercrombie for eight runs and 10 hits in a 9-4 win, so the left-leaning lineup isn't completely neutralized by the matchup.

"We've got to beat right-handed and left-handed pitchers to win," Leggett said. "Everybody's got good pitchers on each side. Our kids can hit left-handed pitching pretty good. We ran into a really good kid and Mercer team, but that second left-hander we knocked around pretty good. Left or right, it doesn't make so much difference. He's got to be a pretty good lefty to get at us. Harbin coming back gives us one more good right-handed hitter against lefties, and before it's all over we'll be better against them."

Top 25 Tournaments
Rainbow Baseball Tournament, Honolulu, Hawaii
No. 11 Arkansas, Hawaii, UT Arlington, Washington

Dairy Queen Classic, Minneapolis, Minn.
Arizona, Minnesota, No. 23 Nebraska, Notre Dame

It's mostly nitpicking to point out other flaws in Leggett's team at this point. By his estimation, the club has played very well in 53 of its 54 innings this year -- a throwing error that sparked a three-run Mercer rally was the Tigers only loss serving as the one ugly inning.

Even with that blip, the pitching staff has allowed 10 runs all year, five of which were unearned. "I just feel good about everybody who's gone out there to pitch," Leggett said. And junior right-handers Jason Berken and Stephen Faris -- the starters against South Carolina -- haven't allowed any runs in more than 20 combined innings.

Those are reasons for the one unfamiliar thing Leggett has to do deal with: Clemson's record. The Tigers are off to a 5-1 start, much better than the 9-10 and 6-8 beginnings to the last two seasons. Clemson lost both games of its early home-and-home series with South Carolina both of those years before rallying to grab the two midweek games that fall later in the spring.

Then again, the results don't have as much effect on the coach as one might think.

"People ask me, 'How do you sleep?' I don't sleep," he said. "If we lose, I can't get away from what could have been different. What could we have done better? If we win, I can't wait to get to ballpark to play again. I'm ready to go at 2 in the morning. You get greedy. "I'd rather battle that than losing and getting no sleep."

Meaningful matchup
A lot of signs point to 11-1 Texas A&M slipping into Gainesville and sneaking out with a pair of wins. No. 5 Florida has lost three of its last four games to slip to 8-4, and junior first baseman Matt LaPorta (who has missed the last four games) won't return until the middle game of the series at the earliest. Plus the Aggies have a 1.77 team ERA, while the Gators have slumped at the plate lately.

But we don't like that analysis. Texas A&M's opponents this year hold a combined 36-39 record, and it has hit one home run all season. Much of its offense comes from racing around the bases, with 37 steals in 53 tries, but UF catcher Brian Jeroloman might slow that down a bit. Just seven runners have attempted to steal against him in 12 games.

Upset city
Any time a team from the Northeast Conference can win a series at the home of a Conference USA member, consider it an upset. So Monmouth (0-3) is the pick at Central Florida (4-7) this weekend. Monmouth got swept at Houston last week, but played respectably (losing 3-1, 9-1, 6-0). It's a pitching-and-speed club that returns all of its top arms. The Hawks also added a key junior college transfer to a staff that posted a school-record 4.21 ERA last year, when it lost in the conference championship game following a 30-24 season. Senior left-hander Joe Cummings held Houston to two runs on five hits over seven innings last week and could help Monmouth win what looks to be a low-scoring series.

In the dugout
Rice's Eddie Degerman (3-0, 0.79 ERA, 33 strikeouts in 23 innings) said facing top competition, like Nebraska and Joba Chamberlain (whom he beat 3-2 last weekend), doesn't change much about the way he approaches the game. So when Degerman faces Cal State Fullerton this weekend, it won't matter that the Titans are ranked seventh in the nation or hail from just south of his hometown of Grenada Hills, Calif.

Q: Had you ever been to Texas before you transferred to Rice from UC Irvine before the 2003-2004 season?
A: Maybe in an airport, but that's about it. I'm getting used to it. The weather's a lot different; it rains a lot in Houston and people say y'all. And the first week I was here, the airline lost my luggage and my flight was messed up. And I hadn't even played baseball yet. I've adjusted though. A lot of the people are nice here and really hospitable.

Q: You played with first-round picks Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend in 2004. Who would you pick if you could only start one in an important game?
A: Oh shoot, I don't know. I would take any of them, but if I had to pick, um, I don't know. I'm trying to think about who I'm going to see. Shoot, this is a tough question. … Based on the year when I was here, I would pick Townsend because I don't think he lost that year. He really competed. I know Niemann had a great year the year before and Humber was good every year. I'm hoping they won't see this and won't know I picked any of them.

Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: This semester I have a lot free time. I only have one class. I'm kind of on the Matt Leinart program. It's an industrial psychology class. It has to do with human resources and jobs, and I'm still trying to figure it out. It's part of my second major; I'm an economics and managerial studies major.

Q: What will you do with those degrees?
A: I'm not sure. I might go to law school or into some sort of business or real estate. That's why I'm hoping to play baseball for a little while.