By William Qualkinbush.
Lost in the shuffle of a disappointing 2014 Clemson baseball season was a solid performance across the board on offense. It seems like revisionist history, but the Tigers boasted some of the best numbers in the Atlantic Coast Conference at the plate a season ago.
Several key cogs in that lineup return to what should be a potent force at bat for Jack Leggett’s club in 2015. In fact, only a couple of key contributors are missing, and that means the competition for at-bats should be hot until Opening Day.
The bad news for the Tigers is that all three of its .300-plus hitters from last season will be either limited or absent. Gone to the pros are catcher Garrett Boulware, who left after his junior season, and second baseman Steve Wilkerson, and returning shortstop Tyler Krieger is still smarting from a torn labrum suffered at the end of the 2014 campaign.
The staff hopes to have Krieger in some capacity when the season begins, even if he has to fill the designated hitter role for a while as his throwing arm continues to heal. He led the team with a .338 batting average a year ago, so having him consistently present in the lineup is a must.
“He’s full-go hitting right now,” assistant Bradley LeCroy said. “His rehab throwing is going really well. We’re hoping he’ll be back for Opening Day.”
Krieger’s partner in the middle infield will likely be sophomore Eli White, who has made a quantum leap offensively during the offseason to become a more well-rounded player at second base. Weston Wilson appears set to see the field at third base for the majority of the time after a strong start was muted when he hit the dreaded freshman wall last season.
The Tigers got very little production from their first basemen last season. LeCroy says sophomore Andrew Cox could be the answer after moving permanently to first during the fall.
“His energy he brings every day is what we ask every guy on our team to bring every day,” LeCroy said. “He’s such a role model when we talk about an energy player.”
Chris Okey returns to hold down the catcher spot after an impressive freshman season, only this time he will not be splitting time with Boulware. Instead, a new face—freshman Robert Jolly, a Myrtle Beach native—has entered the program with the capability to provide a break for Okey.
“He had a really good fall swinging the bat,” LeCroy said of Jolly. “There may be some options for Robert to maybe pinch hit against a right-hander, and possibly DH at times because he can really handle the bat and move the ball around. He’s a very, very solid catcher.”
Two of the three outfield spots are solidly occupied, with Tyler Slaton returning in center and future top draft pick Steven Duggar in right. Left field was unstable last season, and there is upheaval once again. At least a handful of players, both returners and newcomers, will vie for that spot, and the battle will likely carry over into the season.
“We’ve got some really good options,” LeCroy said. “The next three weeks in preseason camp are really going to decide who’s going to play there.”
There should be a difference regardless of personnel. College baseball has made some changes to the structure of the baseball for 2015, and it should lead to more action at the ballpark this season.
“We’re not going to go back to where teams are hitting 100 home runs, but I think the games will be a little bit more exciting,” LeCroy said. “There will be more doubles. There will be more home runs.”
Exactly who will be hitting those doubles and homers remains to be seen, but the Tigers feel optimistic about the possibilities as the 2015 season approaches.