Much has changed over the course of the long weekend for Clemson baseball. Leaving Louisville, it seemed apparent that the Tigers’ grip on a top seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament had loosened, perhaps to the same Virginia team that just bested Clemson on a neutral field.
The selection committee had other ideas. The Tigers will, in fact, be a number one seed in their upcoming regional. We know that Vanderbilt, St. John’s, and UNCG are the three other teams invited to participate in the Clemson Regional. Here are a few thoughts on the events of the past 24 or so hours.
There’s a good rationale for the committee allowing Clemson to host.
Listening to the folks on ESPN during the selection show, you’d think Clemson stunk all year long. Besides one passing acknowledgment of strength of schedule, they took turns bashing the committee’s decision to award Clemson the final host designation. A simple look at the numbers, though, shows there’s a perfectly good reason to give the Tigers the nod over a team like Virginia.
Since 2010, every single ACC or SEC team ranked inside the top 12 in the RPI has been selected to host. Under those criteria, Clemson qualified and Virginia did not. The Cavaliers had a weak strength of schedule, played only one nonconference game against an RPI top 50 team—it came against 50th-ranked Old Dominion—and played eight fewer games against NCAA Tournament teams than Clemson did.
Yes, Virginia played much better down the stretch than Clemson. No, the Tigers didn’t exactly set the world on fire over the final month-plus of the season. But these selection processes—especially in baseball—are often played on paper because it’s impossible to watch every game. The committee has to rely upon a plethora of metrics to make its determinations, and many of those back up the notion that Clemson is a worthy host team.
The Tigers got no favors, and rightfully so.
While the players were noticeably amused at the scoffing of Virginia players and the ESPN studio hosts, they weren’t quite as boisterous once the other three teams they will need to defeat were announced. As presumably the final number one seed, Clemson should get a tough draw, and it certainly did.
Vanderbilt is a dangerous two seed. The Commodores finished inside the RPI top 25, split their 40 games against top 100 opposition, and should be well rested after being upset by South Carolina in the SEC Tournament play-in round last week. They don’t hit the ball great, but they grind out at-bats, and the pitching staff Vandy has is filled with solid arms.
St. John’s has a level of competition problem, but it still won 42 games, and its only game against a top 50 opponent was a win at North Carolina in early March. The Red Storm could be a sleeping giant, with the third-best batting average in the nation—and tops among tourney teams—and the sixth-best ERA. Good luck with that, Vandy.
Then there’s UNCG, which ranks just behind St. John’s in batting average and just won the Southern Conference. The Spartans don’t pitch very well, but they led the SoCon in fielding percentage. In other words, it’s not going to be easy to advance.
Kyle Wright is looming.
Most of the time, we spend this week trying to determine if a team will use its Friday starter as it always does or save him for a potential winners bracket showdown with a top seed. With Vandy, its top starter throws on Saturdays anyway, so it’s not a big adjustment.
Wright just might be the number one overall selection in next month’s MLB Draft. In other words, he’s the righthanded version of Louisville’s Brendan McKay, who the Tigers just faced at home a few weeks ago. He didn’t throw last week due to Vandy’s early exit, so he should be geared up to face the Tigers, assuming Tim Corbin doesn’t tinker with his rotation. I’d say the odds are pretty good we won’t see Wright until Saturday.
The crowd should be large and invested, but that could easily backfire.
Another reason Clemson gets the benefit of the doubt in these situations is a stellar track record of fan support for NCAA Tournament baseball events. No doubt the Tigers are anticipating a raucous environment at home, as they should.
There’s another side to that coin, however. With the Tigers currently in a slide to close the season, the crowd could become a negative influence if signs of decline continue to appear. That’s nobody’s fault. It just happens. It’s part of dealing with a stretch of play like this. We see it all the time in sports.
If the Tigers play well, they will settle in at home. If they don’t, however, the emotion of the crowd could create an advantage for the opposition. Stay tuned to see which one happens.
It seems like Clemson might be getting healthy in the bullpen.
Monte Lee told reporters on Monday afternoon that he hopes to have Brooks Crawford and Ryan Miller available out of the bullpen this weekend. They are at different stages on the comeback trail, but he was optimistic with both.
The issues with the Tigers in May have been numerous, but bullpen injuries haven’t made things any easier. With more healthy (and proven) arms at his disposal, Lee is more likely to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of a regional from a pitching perspective. Because of the format, traditional usage patterns sometimes don’t cut it. Adding both of those righties to the mix would be a huge boost to the Tigers.
As a side note, Lee also said Chris Williams would at least be able to function as the designated hitter this weekend. They hope he will progress enough with his right shoulder to be able to catch, but regardless, Williams will be in the lineup unless something changes.