CLEMSON -- In many ways the current Clemson University baseball team bears little resemblance to the 2000 squad which stormed through two postseason rounds and into the College World Series.
Oh sure, many of the faces are the same. Casey Stone is still around. So is Ryan Riley. Ditto for Jeff Baker, Khalil Greene and Michael Johnson.
All were starters a season ago when Jack Leggett’s Tigers put together an impressive regular season and, after briefly being sidetracked in the ACC Tournament, swept both the NCAA Regional and Super Regional rounds on their way to Omaha.
But for a good stretch of the 2001 regular season, Clemson’s play did little to inspire comparisons to its most immediate predecessor. In fact, for a long while, even Leggett was perplexed at his team’s makeup. From game to game, it seemed, Clemson’s character and enthusiasm changed as often as dotcom futures on Wall Street.
The panic button was within reach after the Tigers dropped five straight in midseason, including a sweep at the hands of Florida State, sandwiched in between humiliating losses to Winthrop and Coastal Carolina.
At 21-13, Clemson was swooning. And on April 11, in the finale of the two-game series with Coastal Carolina, it appeared to be going from bad to worse as the Chanticleers took a 7-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Tigers, devoid of emotion, languishing in self-pity and on the fast track to mediocrity, appeared dead.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the mortuary. A hit by Greene and a two-run homer by Jarrod Schmidt made it 7-4. Later, at 7-5, Johnson’s two-run single tied the game and sent it to extra innings.
That’s where Greene would wear the laurel of hero, dropping a single into shallow left field that scored Baker with what is, without doubt, the most important run of Clemson’s season to date.
“(That was) biggest game of the year for us,” Leggett said Sunday following the Tigers’ 8-2 win over Seton Hall in the NCAA Regional championship game. “We had lost five games in a row, we were not playing well, we did not have much confidence, we did not have much enthusiasm going. It was a very difficult time for us.
“That was the pivotal game, in my opinion.”
Indeed it was. The victory served as a catalyst for the remainder of the season, which began the next weekend with a three-game sweep of Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke.
Counting the dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Chanticleers, Clemson has won 20 of its last 27 games. Despite a batting order which rarely produces runs in spots 7-9, Leggett’s team has found a way to win more often than not.
The pitching, reasonably consistent all season, was marvelous in the regional tournament thanks in no small measure to Steve Reba’s four-hitter in the opener, a 4-1 win over William & Mary.
The defense, which struggled so badly at times early in the year that third baseman Greene and shortstop Baker switched positions, made just 1 error in 27 innings.
And the offense, laden with power through the middle of the order and inconsistency everywhere else, chose this tournament to string together a stretch where it outscored its three opponents 36-7.
No doubt, Clemson is peaking at the right time.
Whether or not that’s enough to expect the Tigers to challenge mighty Miami, the No. 2 overall tournament seed but No. 1 in all three national polls, remains to be seen. Recent meetings with the Hurricanes have not been kind to Leggett’s club, and asking his Tigers to win two of three on the enemy’s home turf may be a bit much.
But that’s exactly what Leggett intends to do. And it’s exactly what his players expect of their high-intensity coach.
“Those other games with Miami don’t mean a thing to us,” Leggett said Sunday. “We’re going down there expecting to win, and then it’s on to Omaha.”
Fate, and the Hurricanes, will conspire to determine if Leggett is a prophet or an illusionist.
With any luck, he may be a bit of both.
Dan Scott is the host of SportsTalk (10AM-Noon) on 104.9 FM in Upstate SC and
Managing Editor of Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Daily Messenger