Tigers ready to get baseball season underway

by - Senior Writer -

CLEMSON – When the Clemson Tigers throw out the first pitch for the 2010 baseball season this Friday, they will do so with a new and improved Doug Kingsmore Stadium and a revamped pitching staff that they hope can help get them back into post-season play.

The Tigers return eight position starters, losing only first baseman Ben Paulsen from last season, but have to replace five key pitchers from last year’s squad that advanced to an NCAA Super-Regional, and Leggett said the Tigers are looking forward to finally getting the season started.

“We are excited, and looking forward to playing somebody in a different colored uniform,” Leggett said. “We have been playing intra-squad games and playing against each other, so we are anxious to get out there and try something new.”

Leggett said that he thinks the wealth of offensive talent returning will be a strength this season.

“I think we have a lot of versatility,” Leggett said. “We have a lot of kids that can play a lot of different positions. We have some depth, and we have some experience with those position players. We have an experienced infield coming back, with three out of four guys, and we have some intra-team competition going on that can only help us.

“We have got some guys that can run, and we have got some doubles hitters and guys that can bang the ball in the gaps a little bit. We just have to be fundamentally sound all the time, and put pressure on the other team. If we do that, we have got a good chance to be a good offensive team.”

The Tigers return two catchers that combined for 66 starts last season in junior John Nester (.304, 5 homers, 33 RBI) and sophomore Chris Pohl (.194). Nester will also provide depth at first base. Freshmen Spencer Kieboom and Marcus Curry will also vie for time behind the plate.

The infield starts with senior co-captain and second baseman Mike Freeman, a career .309 hitter. Sophomore shortstop Brad Miller (.273, 49 runs, 16 stolen bases) led the nation in walks by a freshman last season (53) and started all 66 games in 2009. Sophomore Jason Stolz started 42 games at third base last season and will vie for the starting job there this season after hitting .315 in 143 plate appearances last year.

A player to keep an eye on will be sophomore John Hinson, who red-shirted in 2009 due to a back injury. He can play any position in the field, and will certainly contend for a starting job somewhere in the infield after hitting .264 in 2008. Freshman Richie Shaffer, the 27th-rated prospect in the nation last season by Baseball America, will get a long look at first base, and freshmen Seth Neely and Kevin Caughman will also compete for playing time around the infield.

In 2009, the Tigers had a regular rotation of five outfielders, and all five return in 2010. Fifth-year senior Wilson Boyd, who is the lone holdover from Clemson’s 2006 College World Series team [he red-shirted that season], returns this season, coming off a campaign that saw him hit .341 with 46 RBIs last season. Junior Jeff Schaus, a First-Team All-ACC selection last season (.320, 14 doubles, 13 homers, 50 RBI), will likely start in left.

Kyle Parker, who also moonlights as Clemson’s quarterback in his spare time, will compete for the starting job in right field, bringing 26 homers and 102 RBIs in his two years of experience to the plate. Junior co-captain Chris Epps, who will compete for Parker for the job in right, was Clemson’s hottest hitter down the stretch last season, hitting a team-best .464 with two homers nine RBIs and eight runs scored during Clemson’s NCAA Tournament run. Speedster Addison Johnson will also be a part of the outfield mix, and is also Leggett’s best defensive outfielder.

Boyd says he loves the chemistry that this team has shown during pre-season drills and scrimmages, and thinks that chemistry can take this team a long way.

“It just seems different than the past couple of years,” Boyd said of the team’s attitude. “Everybody is more upbeat, and I feel like we have great team chemistry this year. We have the talent to make another regional or super regional trip. As for Omaha, it will be all about how bad we want it, and the desire we have. If we get hot at the right time, we can do it.

“I think part of what is different is that we have so many returning position players, and there is far less to learn about playing in the field and playing defense. I think we have to utilize our speed, but we also have mature hitters that can make it tough on pitchers, and work deep counts. I think it will be tough on pitchers facing our lineup, which is deep 1-through-9, with no holes.”

The Tiger pitching staff lost five key performers from 2009 in Matt Vaughn, Ryan Hinson, Trey Delk, Graham Stoneburner and Chris Dwyer. All five pitched at least 38 innings, and Leggett and new pitching coach Dan Pepicelli will have to choose from a bevy of talented arms to find a solid weekend rotation, an extra middle innings reliever and closer.

Junior lefty Casey Harman has a 3.93 ERA in 15 career starts, and he will most likely be one of Leggett’s weekend starters this season. He has allowed just 26 walks while striking out 133, a 5.1 ratio that is the best in school history. Harman has worked on his fastball and changeup in the offseason in an effort to find a complimentary out-pitch to his devastating slider.

Two sophomores will also be competing for starting spots on the weekend. Scott Wesimann had a 1.23 ERA and 3-1 record last season (three starts), while Will Lamb, a 6-foot-5 lefty, had a 2.45 ERA in 22 innings. Senior co-captain Justin Sarratt has been used as a spot starter and long reliever in his career, and will have the opportunity to start this season. David Haselden (17.2 innings pitched in 2009, Kevin Brady (1.69 ERA in four appearances before being red-shirted) and Josh Thrailkill will all also have the chance to be a starter in 2010.

Senior righty Tomas Cruz will reprise his role in both short and long relief this season after limiting opponents to a .195 batting average in 24 appearances in 2009. Junior righty Alex Frederick and freshman lefty Joseph Moorefield, a red-shirt last season, will also vie for innings. The Tigers also added six freshmen pitchers to the roster in the off-season. Lefty Kevin Kyle joins righties Scott Firth, Dominic Leone, Mike Kent, Jonathan Meyer and J.T. Wauford as freshman who will battle for innings in 2010.

Sarratt said the completion between the pitchers will only make them better once the season starts.

“It has definitely been an intense competition,” Sarratt said. “Every day in practice has been a grind, because we have so many good pitchers. We go at it hard. Sometimes the pitchers have their days, and sometimes the hitters have their days. But we are pulling for each other every time somebody goes out there. We know that we all are going to have to step up to get to where we need to go. It’s all on us, and we are trying to get ready to go.”

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