Play Ball! No. 1 Tigers Ready to Open Season

by - Correspondent -

CLEMSON — It’s finally here.

After all the talking, hype, preseason polls and did I mention talk, the Clemson Tigers will open the 2006 baseball season by hosting James Madison at Doug Kingsmore Stadium today starting at 4 p.m.

Clemson-James Madison Doubleheader Where: Doug Kingsmore Stadium, Clemson When: Today Time: 4 p.m., Second Game 30 minutes after first Tickets: 1-800-CLEMSON TV: none Radio: 104.9 in the upstate Records: Clemson 0-0, James Madison 0-0 Pitchers: Clemson, Jason Berken (right hander). James Madison, Travis Miller (right hander). What to Watch: Clemson starter Jason Berken missed all of 2005 due to Tommy John surgery. In 2004, he was 5-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 10 starts. He also had a .181 opponents’ batting average. Clemson has played 74 games and there have been 631 calendar days since Berken’s last appearance on the mound. Clemson enters the weekend series as the No. 1 ranked team in the country by Baseball America. The Tigers are coming off a 43-23 record that saw them come within one game of reaching the College World Series. Eight position players return as do the majority of a pitching staff that had a combined 3.96 ERA a year ago. About James Madison: The Dukes return 19 lettermen in 2006 while only losing five, and eight of the nine position players. The team returns 10 of its 13 pitchers. Senior infielder Nate Schill is one of the team leaders at the plate. Last season, he hit .303 with six homers and 41 RBIs. Senior infielder Michael Cowgill led the team in homers (14) and RBIs (49) a season ago. He also had a .425 on-base percentage and led the team in slugging percentage (.647). James Madison is coming off a 20-35 season.

“We’re just ready to get it started,” Clemson head coach Jack Leggett said.
Clemson enters the three-game series as the No. 1 ranked team according to Baseball America and is a consensus top 5 pick in all three major polls.

“All that stuff is good and we appreciate all of it, but we haven’t done anything yet and finally we get an opportunity to go out and prove it to ourselves and to everyone else,” Leggett said.

Clemson will be the second No. 1 team this season to attempt to prove its lofty standing. The other – Texas – was swept in its opening series with San Diego two weeks ago.

“Not only Texas, but Winthrop took two of three from Miami… it is very apparent anybody can win,” Clemson third baseman Herman Demmink said.

The Tigers need to look no further than last year for that proof. Clemson lost games to traditional lightweights Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, Winthrop and Old Dominion during last year’s slow start.

The Tigers opened the season with a 15-13 record, ultimately costing them a shot to host a Super Regional despite their 22-6 record to close the second half of the season. Clemson lost two of three games to Baylor in Waco, Texas in the Super Regional.

“The biggest thing right now is for us to realize we do want to play well, but there is no reason for us to panic,” Demmink said. “It’s not like we are going to go 56-0 so at some point we are going to lose a game here and there, but we just have to put it behind us and make sure we are ready to play everyday.”

And the Tigers must come ready to play against a James Madison team that would love nothing more than to upset the No. 1 ranked team in the country on opening weekend.

“They have some very good players,” Demmink said. “They are not a team we can take likely at all. I played with some of those guys in high school.”

The Dukes return 19 lettermen and eight of the nine position starters from a team that went 20-35 a year ago. Ten of their 13 pitchers also return.

Senior infielder Nate Schill is one of the team leaders at the plate. Last season, he hit .303 with six homers and 41 RBIs. Infielder Michael Cowgill led the team in homers (14) and RBIs (49) a season ago. He also had a .425 on-base percentage and led the team in slugging percentage (.647).

Demmink says James Madison will have Clemson’s full attention and respect this weekend.

“Those (so-called easy games) are no longer games that we can come out and play and expect to win without playing our best,” he said.

Clemson returns all eight of its starting infielders and the majority of a pitching staff, which had a 3.96 ERA last season – its best mark since 1996. Today’s starter will be junior Jason Berken, who sat out all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Before suffering an elbow injury in 2004, Berken compiled a 5-1 record as a starter with a 2.53 ERA. It has been 74 games and 631 calendar days since the junior right-hander last took the mound.

“Jason has worked hard to get back out there and we know he is ready to go,” Leggett said. “It will be interesting to see how he gets back in the flow of the game and how he places his pitches, but there is no doubt he is ready to go.”

As will the rest of the Clemson team. Like its starting pitcher, Clemson welcomes the added pressure of having something to prove.

“There is a fine line between pressure and confidence and I think it gives us a little of both, but I hope just a little more confidence to help us play well on a day-to-day basis,” Demmink said.
Second baseman Taylor Harbin says he expects there to be a little nervousness in all the guys, but he says personally he is a lot more comfortable entering this season then he was last year as a true freshman.

“This year is a little more comfortable for me because I have a little better idea on what to expect,” he said. “Being number one puts it into perspective though. There is going to be butterflies regardless.”

And finally, there is going to be a baseball game.

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