CLEMSON— “It’s Deja vu all over again.”
Those words were spoken by baseball legend Yogi Berra could be echoed by Clemson head baseball coach Monte Lee.
The Tigers (39-17, 17-13 ACC) fell five spots to No. 18 in the country after dropping two games against N.C. State over the weekend—exactly where they were last season entering the ACC Tournament. However, the Tigers used the tournament last season to get hot– going 4-0, capturing their first ACC title since 2006 and earning themselves a top eight national seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But there is one difference in the Tigers of 2016 and the Tigers of 2017—momentum.
“Obviously, had a great run in the ACC Tournament last year winning it, and it propelled us to be a regional host and a national seed. So, we’re kind of in a similar situation right now going into the ACC Tournament,” Lee said. “A little bit of a different direction from last year to this year.
“We actually finished the season last year with a sweep, and that kind of propelled us into the ACC Tournament where we made a great run…Struggled here over the last weeks, and had a nice win at N.C. State to close out the regular season, and hopefully that can carry some momentum for us coming into the ACC Tournament.”
The No. 5 seed Tigers open play Tuesday (7 p.m.) against No. 9 seed Duke, and with everything on the line in the opening game of pool play, the Tigers head coach is making a few pitching changes ahead of game one.
With the Tigers facing a must win situation in game one, due to Virginia being the highest seed in the pool (No. 4), the Tigers’ will start Friday starter Charlie Barnes, but will have all hands, minus Pat Krall, on deck should they be needed.
“Bottom line, we’re going to do everything we can to win game one,” Lee said. “So, we’re going to go with Barnes, and if we need to use (Saturday starter) (Alex) Eubanks out of the pen—we’re going to use Eubanks out of the pen to get that win.”
Should the Tigers emerge with a victory Tuesday night, they will have two additional days of rest and preparation before their next game Friday against Virginia.
That time will be used by the coaching staff to make pitching decisions based on who pitched in game one and how much they pitched in game one, but the only thing that Lee is concerning himself with at this point is getting to Friday at 1-0.
“The bottom line is, I think, for us, in terms of our game plan is we’re going to use the guys that we have available to win game one,” Lee said. “Then once we win game one, we’ll let the dust settle and try to figure out what we do in game two based on who we’ve used and how many pitches they’ve thrown.
“The good thing is we’ve got a guy in Eubanks who can start or pitch out of the pen, and the same thing with Krall. And we have (weekday starter) Tyler Jackson who we can start, and hopefully we’re in a position to have to make that decision, because that means we’ve made a deep run in the ACC Tournament.”
One thing that should help the Tigers make a run in the tournament is the return of Chris Williams to the Tigers’ lineup, as well as Chase Pinder—whose ability to play was in doubt after running into the wall at N.C. State and suffering some swelling in his knee.
“We expect Pinder to be 100-percent and ready to go,” Lee said. “Chris Williams, more than likely, will only be able to DH. We don’t feel like his arm is at 100-percent and that he’ll be ready or able to catch…It would be my expectation right now that we won’t be able to use him behind the plate.”
There is little doubt in the minds of the Clemson coaching staff that the addition of Pinder and Williams to their lineup make the Tigers a significantly more dangerous team offensively, and defensively. But injuries are something that every team has to deal with during the course of a long season, and you just have to deal with.
“You take Pinder out of our lineup, Chris Williams out of our lineup, and it’s a different lineup. It’s a different defense. Everybody has to deal with that,” Lee said. “We all have to deal with injuries. We lost (relief pitchers) Ryan Miller and Brooks Crawford for the second half of the season. Ryan Miller was probably—at the time we had 1A and 1B in the closer role with Ryley Gilliam and Ryan Miller, you take that arm out of the bullpen, and that’s a huge blow.”
With the Tigers’ back to near full strength, the Clemson baseball team is excited for the tournament to start—even though they understand that the road to repeating as champions will be a hard one.
“Very excited about being in the tournament,” Lee said. We know how good the baseball is in our league, and we know what kind of challenge we have in front of us and looking forward to it.”