COLUMBIA, S.C. — Early college baseball series rarely get bigger than this for Clemson and South Carolina.
The Palmetto State's biggest colleges and fiercest athletic rivals play their annual three-game series starting Friday night at South Carolina.
The clubs move to Greenville for a contest at the home of the Boston Red Sox' Class A affiliate on Saturday before finishing at Clemson on Sunday.
The baseball matchup is the second most followed contests among fans, surpassed only when the schools play football each fall.
"What you almost see is a football atmosphere at all three stadiums," Gamecocks coach Chad Holbrook said.
The Gamecocks (7-0) have had the edge recently, winning 20 of the past 28 meetings with the Tigers (6-1) including two-game sweeps to eliminate Clemson from the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2012.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett says he's eager to see how his team handles the high-intensity weekend at three sold-out venues.
"There is a lot of interest from the fans in the state because it is a great intra-state rivalry," he said. "That makes it a big deal and we are excited about the opportunities that we have in front of us."
Both clubs are on winning streaks, Clemson winning six straight after losing its opening game against Eastern Michigan on February 14th while South Carolina hasn't allowed a run in its past five victories.
The Gamecocks broke their old mark of four straight shutouts set in 1972 while their pitchers haven't given up a run in 51 innings. Clemson enters with a .322 team batting average, second in the Atlantic Coast Conference and looking to win a season series against its rival for the first time since 2006.
"We have been ready for this day to come so we could focus solely on South Carolina," said Tigers catcher Garrett Boulware, second on the team with nine RBIs.
The series opens Friday with two of college baseball's top pitchers in juniors Jordan Montgomery of South Carolina and Daniel Gossett for Clemson.
Montgomery has a 2-0 mark against the Tigers, including a stinging 4-3 defeat to end Clemson's season in the NCAA regional two years back.
Gossett tied for the ACC lead in wins with a 10-4 mark last year and became the first Clemson pitcher since 2002 to post double-digit victories. But the South Carolina native has lost twice in the rivalry, including a 6-0 defeat against Montgomery to start last year's rivalry series that the Gamecocks would take two games to one.
On Saturday, the likely mound matchup is between two sophomores who've started 2-0, South Carolina's Jack Wynkoop and Clemson's Matthew Crownover.
The Sunday finale will feature the Gamecocks freshman standout Will Crowe on the mound. Crowe has thrown 12 2-3 scoreless innings and has yet to surrender a run in his first two college starts.
Holbrook doesn't worry about whether the lack of rivalry experience — neither Wynkoop nor Crowe have pitched against the Tigers — of his staff. Both, he says, have competed in big spots throughout their careers.
"If they don't do well, it's not going to be because the stage is too big," said Holbrook, starting his second year at South Carolina.
The Gamecocks have backed up their pitching numbers with a solid start at the plate. They're second in the Southeastern Conference with a .319 team batting average.
First baseman Kyle Martin leads the SEC with his .500 batting average, 12 for 24 through seven games.
No one on either side has yet to play a game like this one.
South Carolina catcher Grayson Greiner grew up near Columbia and has understood the rivalry — he's always been a Gamecocks fan — since playing youth baseball.
"I don't think very many other rivalries can match this," he said.
Holbrook, who played college ball and coached on staff at North Carolina for 19 years and remains close friends with Tar Heels basketball coach Roy Williams, compared this weekend's games to the Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry.
"Within our borders, that's the passion these people have for it," he said.