By Will Vandervort
COLUMBIA – Since giving up five runs in the top of the ninth innings against North Carolina on May 24, the Clemson baseball team has not been the same team.
The Tigers appear to have fallen apart and no matter how hard they try they just can’t seem to find that magic that helped them win 23 of 27 games from April 1-May 16 and a build a five-run lead against the Tar Heels through the first eight innings in the ACC Championships last week.
Since scoring two runs in the bottom of the eighth against North Carolina, Clemson has produced just three runs in their last 23 innings, including Friday’s 8-3 loss to Liberty in Game 1 of the Columbia Regional.
During that same span, Clemson has been outscored 25-3.
“We are just not getting guys on base,” centerfielder Thomas Brittle said. “When we played Miami, we did not have many base runners or many scoring opportunities and again today we did not have many guys on base.
“We have not been taking that great at-bats and no one in the lineup has been doing it. It’s one of those things we have to flush and come back tomorrow, get a win and postpone the end of our season.”
To do that Clemson (39-21) will have to get a few more hits. The Tigers were able to get five runners on base in two of the first three innings, scoring two of their runs, but after that Liberty pitcher Josh Richardson kept them from getting locked in and kept them off balance the rest of the day.
Richardson recorded 17 straight outs at one point after giving up an RBI single to Steven Duggar in the third inning. The Tigers finished the game with only two more base runners, both coming on hits in the bottom of the ninth from Duggar and Kennedy.
“As of right now we are playing for our season,” Duggar said. “Guys are just going to have to be aggressive and stay with their approach. We are going to have to make some adjustments during the game, but right now we are fighting for our season and some guys’ careers.”
Big stage. Clemson head coach Jack Leggett was watching his team warm up prior to Friday’s game when he noticed he had seven freshmen playing and/or pitching in what was their first regional game.
“I was thinking either one or two things could happen here today. Either we play really good because we do not know the difference or play like we have not been in a lot of them,” he said. “So we kind of took the second route, which was unfortunate.
“Now we have a tough battle coming from the other direction, but hopefully we can come out here tomorrow relaxed and play with that mindset that we have nothing to lose and go after it and go one game at a time.”
Play like it’s 1999. The last time Clemson lost to a mid-major team in an NCAA Regional game came in the first game of the 1999 Arkansas Regional.
Missouri State drilled the Tigers 23-5 that afternoon. Leggett is hoping history will repeat itself in the Columbia Regional after Friday’s lackluster performance against Liberty. Clemson went onto to win its next four games in that Arkansas regional, including two straight over Missouri State to advance to the College Station (Tex.) Super Regional.
“I have been in this situation before,” Leggett said. “We had to win four ball games in a row to get through the regionals. It can happen, but we have to play a lot better than we did today. We allowed them to get some confidence early and once they got it going that made it harder for us.”
McGibbon update. Leggett says first baseman Jon McGibbon did not play Friday because of a pulled hamstring he suffered in practice on Tuesday. He will not play Saturday either. Freshman Kevin Bradley started at first base on Friday and could start there again on Saturday. Bradley was 0-for-3 at the plate and was unable to scoop up two bad throws in the third and sixth innings that led to Liberty runs.
McGibbon has had the reputation of being one of the best first base fielders in the ACC and was hitting near .400 at the plate in the last month of the season.