Double elimination provides margin for error for a baseball team. One loss isn’t doomsday. Teams come out of the losers bracket to advance in tournaments all the time.
There’s a funny thing about margin for error, though. It can be gone in a flash, leaving desperation in its wake.
Clemson experienced the reality of disappearing margin after a 9-4 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday night. Just 24 hours after the euphoria of an opening victory that put the Tigers just two wins away from a trip to a super regional, the feeling was much different. The hopeful tones of a coming surge gave way to the somber recognition that tomorrow could be the final day these players and coaches spend together.
Operating with margin can be freeing, but it can also be deceiving. That margin always seems larger and more forgiving than it ultimately is. It’s hard to make a team play desperate when it doesn’t need to be.
Human nature makes us this way. Every paper I wrote in college was a last minute project—I work best under the gun, I promise—even though I had days to work on each assignment. The same thing applied to every major test. Even though there was plenty of time, I still waited until that time was gone to get down to business.
On Saturday, Clemson played like a team that had plenty of extra time and space to spare. The urgency that comes when the stakes are the highest wasn’t quite there. Vanderbilt played with that kind of urgency, and it showed.
Urgency is the essence of small ball. Vandy’s philosophy sacrifices outs to ensure that each leadoff baserunner, two-out walk, or single up the middle has a high probability of scoring. It places the highest priority on that run.
Clemson’s way of playing isn’t totally different, but the Tigers are more reliant on home runs and extra-base hits. This is a little more laid-back because anyone, at any time, can produce. Neither is right or wrong, but one is more urgent. That urgency can backfire, but it didn’t for Vandy on Saturday.
The Commodores drove in six runs with two outs. They had eight hits with runners in scoring position. They routinely barreled up Charlie Barnes’ fastballs early in counts. Meanwhile, the Tigers struggled with runners in scoring position (2-11) and missed some critical chances to swing the game—both at the plate and in the field.
Vanderbilt’s Kyle Wright wasn’t his best, but he wasn’t far off, either. He struck out nine batters and kept the Tigers away from scoring position for the most part. He limited damage by saving his best pitching for the toughest spots.
Barnes did it during the early innings, too. He stranded runners in scoring position in each of the first two innings, then a runner on first in the third. Sooner or later, though, a run was going to push through. His sense of urgency that appeared when Vandy threatened could not keep threats from popping up time and time again. Eventually, the Commodores pushed a few runs across and coasted to victory.
Now, the Tigers have no choices. Andrew Cox spoke in postgame about his team “fighting for our lives” in Sunday’s action. Ideally, they would have already been doing it, but human nature doesn’t work that way. It’s hard to pretend a situation is do-or-die when it isn’t. Now it is.
There are no more chances to hit the reset button, no more new days to experiment with potential solutions, no more strings to pull. Now it’s win or go home.
The paper is due. The test is nigh. The hour has come. The margin is gone.
The fate of Clemson’s season hangs in the balance. Let’s see if they come out with a mentality to match.