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‘It’ is back

We all know about “it”. The thing you either have or you don’t. The look, the feel, the emotion. The definition of “it” can be elusive, but it’s unmistakable.

Early in the season, Clemson had “it”. Everyone knew it. Somewhere along the line—perhaps on a Saturday night in Tallahassee when the Tigers relaxed after building an insurmountable lead—“it” disappeared. Everyone knew that, too.

For weeks, Monte Lee and his staff have mounted a crusade to find a thing for which you cannot search. The harder you try to recapture the magic, the more elusive it can become. The longer you go without seeing it, the more distant the memories are in the rear view mirror.

That frustrating place—close enough to remember, distant enough to wonder if it would ever return—is where Clemson found itself in relation to “it” this weekend. Weeks have passed. Games have been won, often in ways that made us all wonder if “it” was back. But “it” never came back.

The victories just looked different, even the ones that came by comfortable margins. Fans saw the difference and were confused by it. Plate appearances once marked by aggression suddenly saw Tiger hitters ceding the upper hand. Routine plays turned into errors. Balls down the line became fair or foul, it seemed, based on the result less favorable for Clemson.

These things happen, and when they do, coaches and players are powerless. Check out this quote from St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer, whose team won 42 games but was the first team eliminated from Clemson’s regional:

“Our body of work our entire year has been good. We’ve been consistent. We just didn’t finish. When I say ‘lose the edge,’ there’s something there that you lose in the game of baseball that changes the complexion of the game a little bit, in how you attack the game, your confidence, how you approach hitters, how you approach the pitcher that you’re facing, making plays–things of that nature. We just didn’t do it well enough. We did it at times but not consistently enough to win ballgames.”

Clemson was stuck in this vicious, unforgiving cycle—and Sunday felt like more of the same. For the first five innings, the script was all too familiar. UNCG built a 3-0 lead with a couple of hard hits and some high-level small ball execution. Clemson chipped into the lead, cutting it to a run at 3-2, but that was nothing new. We’d seen it before.

Then Owen Griffith came in to pitch. He struck out the cleanup batter. He thumped his chest a time or two.

That play didn’t bring “it” back, but it created the circumstances under which it could return, because Griffith’s 4.2 innings of work were masterful. His performance was also uncommon, and it often takes an uncommon performance to shake loose the hold anxiety has over a team when it loses its ability to freely play the game.

The seventh inning was the one that looked different. We’ve seen a bunch of rallies like that one since mid-April, but this one just wasn’t the same. Logan Davidson’s two-run bomb jolted the stadium to life. When Reed Rohlman scored on a wild pitch, it was reminiscent of something we might have witnessed back in March, as aggressive abandon replaced hesitation in the moment.

There have been innings like Griffith’s, homers like Davidson’s, and plays like Rohlman’s over the past two months. None of them looked or felt like these. The crowd knew it, because the fans responded in kind, but I doubt anyone in the stadium can put a finger on why he or she did.

That’s the frustrating part about “it” for a team. You have it, lose it, and find it, and not once does the process make sense.

For the first time in a while, Monte Lee’s club carried the momentum over into what he said was the greatest baseball game he’s ever seen. Maybe it was the late hour, but he actually looked emotional when describing how the Tigers played—like a coach who had pushed every button, tried every tinker, made every switch imaginable, and had to wait until the season’s 11th hour before finally experiencing the fruits of his labor.

Clemson’s offense pounded out ten hits against the Commodores. The hitters were aggressive and patient in appropriate counts and situations. They made productive outs. Kyle Wilkie looks like a star, and he hasn’t been as good as Logan Davidson. Both are freshmen.

The defensive effort the Tigers put forth far exceeded the call of duty. Reed Rohlman went to the wall and caught two different balls leaping into the air. He also dove to rob extra bases with a full-extension grab that brought every person in the park to his or her feet. Chase Pinder slammed into the wall. The infield was as brilliant as ever.

Then there was Tyler Jackson. His pitching performance was so masterful that I considered it a privilege to be there to watch him throw, and I told him so after the game. Unexpected greatness and overwhelming calm oozed from him pitch after pitch after pitch. He just kept going, locating his fastball within the strike zone better than he has all season and throwing all of his pitches for strikes. Neither he nor Wilkie could adequately put it into words after the game.

Many—if not all—of these things have happened before over the past 25 or so games. Those things didn’t change the mojo in the locker room. For some reason, yesterday changed everything.

The coaches know it. The players know it. The fans know it. Also important: Vanderbilt knows it.

Get ready for an exciting Monday at the ballpark. I’d expect a ravenous crowd brimming with optimism at the thought of one more chance to see the Tigers—these Tigers, the ones who have “it” again—play in Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

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