By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
Left field was supposed to be easy for Clemson baseball this season.
A year after splitting time between third base and designated hitter, rising senior Shane Kennedy was the odds-on favorite to man one of the two corner outfield slots for the Tigers. Then disaster struck in the form of a knee injury.
“He had a great fall there until he got injured,” assistant coach Bradley LeCroy said. “He was really learning how to play the outfield position. Obviously, we all know what kind of offensive player he is.”
Now, the Tigers will be without Kennedy until at least early April. As a result, the one simple solution to the only opening in the everyday lineup has become complex as multiple candidates vie for repetitions at that spot on the field.
“When a door opens, somebody else has got to step up,” LeCroy said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys that can do that.”
Several returners will look to gain the upper hand in preseason practice. Many of them logged time out in left field a season ago, so their names may be familiar for Tiger fans.
Speedster Maleeke Gibson is considered one of the favorites to earn early at-bats. He started 26 games last season, stealing eight bases and driving in 16 runs in only 110 at-bats. Jack Leggett seemed to like Gibson’s versatility in the lineup in 2013, even casting him as a designated hitter on several occasions.
Mike Triller gives the Tigers an efficient option. The sophomore from Vermont had nine hits in only 27 at-bats last season, driving in seven runs in the process. Joe Costigan is a patient hitter who got on base at a .444 clip in 2013. His presence could also be valuable.
Redshirt freshman Andrew Cox could also be in the mix for the Clemson left field spot. The Belton native sat and watched last season, and LeCroy feels he may be in line for some repetitions as well.
“It’s going to be a good competition out there, which is good,” he said. “These guys need to compete against each other and rise to the top. Whoever fills in for Shane until he gets back is going to do a great job.”
LeCroy expects one of the veterans who played extensively last season to win the job early. As is the case all throughout the lineup, players who were inexperienced last season now understand what the college game is all about and can adapt quickly to the approaching campaign.
“They know that it’s a long season,” LeCroy said of the returners. “It’s sometimes five, six games a week. They know how to manage their time better.”
Expectations do not stop and wait for injuries to subside, so the Tigers must move on without Kennedy. Even though his return seems possible prior to a crucial stretch run, Leggett, LeCroy, and the rest of the coaching staff need a true starter to emerge and contribute.
Given what Kennedy meant last season, that task is easier said than done.