Commentary: Pushing And Prodding, Leggett Keeps Tigers Moving Forward

by - Correspondent -

One could feel the heat rising to dangerous levels all weekend.

And when Sunday a week ago was over, and Clemson had finished losing three straight Atlantic Coast Conference games to Virginia in Charlottesville, the steam rising from the Tigers team bus as it rolled out of Davenport Field had nothing to do with the exhaust system.

Something, or more to the point someone, was due to blow.

Fast forward a week.

It's all smiles and handshakes, hugs and pats on the back as Clemson wrapped up a three-game series sweep of visiting North Carolina State. The same Wolfpack team, mind you, which took two of three from then No. 1 Georgia Tech the same weekend the Tigers were swashbuckled into submission by the Cavaliers.

So what gives? How can a team look so bad one weekend, and so dominant the next?

Welcome to baseball, friends. Such bedevilment is one of the many reasons why those of us who love the game go batty over it season after maddening season.

And yet, living and dying with this Clemson baseball team on a day-to-day basis could drive even the most sane among us into a one-size-fits-all wrap-around jacket. Indeed, it would behoove Tiger fans to remember the oldest of cliches surrounding the sport:

This game, more than any other, isn't a sprint. It's a marathon.

Take last season, for example.

The Tigers were 15-13 after 28 games, exactly halfway through the regular season. At that point head coach Jack Leggett called a team meeting and laid it all on the line. Every goal the team had set for itself was still attainable, even though the Tigers were just two games above .500.

It was up to them to decide how the rest of the season would go.

Well, history shows that the 2005 Tigers played well enough over the second half of the season to host - and win - an NCAA Regional Tournament, and come within one game of a surprise trip to the College World Series.

But perspective is a funny thing.

Because the team returned all eight position players from 2005, two thirds of its pitching rotation, a healthy Jason Berken and increased depth in the bullpen, the sky seemed to be the limit for 2006.

In fact, Clemson was No. 1 in the country in two of the three major polls before it ever played a game. The Tigers held that lofty ranking for two weeks, fell to No. 2 in the third week, and tumbled all the way to No. 10 after the Virginia debacle.

No doubt, playing as the hunted rather than the hunter was making 2006 a much different ride than the previous season.

So then it's up to Leggett to decide which button to push. How does he prod this 2006 Clemson baseball team? When does he pat on the back? When does he kick in the rear end?

One would have thought, after a Saturday loss at bitter rival South Carolina earlier this season, Leggett would have exploded. Instead, he encouraged.

"We had to come back and play them again the next day," the coach recalled. "We didn't play badly in that game. They just beat us. It was important that we be ready to come back and win the next one."

Leggett pushed the right button. Clemson beat the Gamecocks the next day at home.

But after the sweep in Virginia, that something about to blow was Leggett. And he did.

"We had a team meeting after Virginia and worked things out," Berken said.

Some team meeting. Leggett talked. Loudly. The team listened. It had no choice.

Every player had his contribution to the program evaluated. This is what you're doing well. This is what you need to do better. And now.

And again, Leggett's timing was perfect. Two in a row over Elon in midweek, three straight over the Wolfpack. Suddenly the Tigers are 16-6 heading into yet another big week, facing two games with Georgia and three in Miami.

But from this point forward, they're all big weeks. Thirty-four regular-season games remain. Of them, 24 are ACC matchups. Once again, every goal Clemson set for itself in the regular season is there for the taking.

Only this time, the Tigers are a good two or three steps ahead of their pace from last year.

Stumbling blocks? There will be plenty. And you can bet Leggett will be standing there waiting - pat on the back in one hand, fungo bat in the other.

Ready to wield whichever will get the job done.

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