Sports people talk about the postseason as a new season. The word “opportunity” gets thrown around quite a bit.
Every participating team is presented with opportunities. Some will seize them, some won’t. The magnitude as perceived by the public doesn’t cheapen the accomplishment when a relatively low bar is hurdled.
Clemson cleared the UNCG bar on Friday night with a 5-4 win. For a host team facing an opponent it might have otherwise seen on a Tuesday or Wednesday during the season, winning the game might not seem that significant—more like an expectation than an achievement.
Know who wishes they’d cleared the low bar on Friday? North Carolina, the number two overall seed in the 64-team NCAA Championship, trailed Davidson 8-0 early before falling 8-4. Florida State, the ACC tournament champion who lost 3-1 at home to Tennessee Tech, feels the Tar Heels’ pain. The same goes for 40-win regional host Houston after its opening loss to Iowa.
What Clemson had was an opportunity to operate from the winners bracket at home for the remainder of the weekend. It seized that opportunity, even if it left some smaller ones on the table during the process.
Take Weston Jackson, for instance. It became clear early in the game that Jackson held the keys to a win or a loss for the Tigers, since UNCG coach Link Jarrett was determined to make anyone other than Seth Beer beat his ballclub. Three times Beer was intentionally walked, three times Jackson strode to the plate with a chance to make a difference.
The first time, he popped out to third with the bases loaded after a lengthy exchange of pitches. The second time, he flew out to center on the first pitch he saw with men on first and second and two outs. The pressure was on Jackson—two plate appearances, five men on base—and he stranded every single baserunner.
Then, Jackson seized his opportunity. He ripped a single into right field, plating two runs and giving the Tigers a lead they would never relinquish. Suddenly, the missed opportunities were dwarfed by the one converted.
Pat Krall had his own opportunity. One week after failing to record an out in the ACC Baseball Championship, the big lefty was called upon to get the final three in Clemson’s opener. He responded with 18 pitches, giving up only one single and picking up a routine save—his first since last season.
The postseason presents a plethora of opportunities for individual players that combine to form the larger opportunity to either win or lose. Because of efforts like Jackson’s and Krall’s, the Tigers took advantage of the larger chance and will now fight from an advantageous place throughout the remainder of the regional.
Joining them there is Vanderbilt. The Commodores are dangerous, as evidenced by a 13-4 shellacking of St. John’s on Friday afternoon that put the rest of the regional on notice. The Vandy offense pounded 18 hits against pitchers whose earned run averages sat below 2.00, a testament to an opportunistic offensive approach that looked eerily similar to what Clemson was doing for the first two-thirds of this season.
Clemson will have another opportunity to seize against Kyle Wright, Vandy’s starting pitcher. His numbers look like any typical Friday starter in a major conference, but don’t be fooled. He’s anything but typical.
Wright will likely be taken first overall in the upcoming MLB Draft. Monte Lee said Friday that he throws three pitches for strikes and that his fastball sits in the 94-95 miles per hour range with a max velocity of 98. He said those words like he knew the uphill climb ahead of his team.
Each at-bat against Wright will be a new opportunity. Many of those opportunities will end in failure, just as they did against other stud pitchers such as South Carolina’s Clarke Schmidt, North Carolina’s J.B. Bukauskas, and Louisville’s Brendan McKay.
Winning every time is impossible. All the Tigers need to do is to win enough of them, the ones that matter most. They did that on Friday en route to a one-run win, but it seems obvious that earning a victory on Saturday will require a bit more.
Three hits in 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position probably won’t cut it. A second straight error-free game feels borderline necessary. Charlie Barnes will need to match his opposite number with poise and precision and toughness.
Opportunity one has been seized. Opportunity two awaits. Welcome to the postseason.