UNC sweeps Clemson
CLEMSON -- What Clemson baseball has learned about itself in consecutive series losses to top-10 teams is this Tigers' team has little margin for error.
No. 20 Clemson knew its bats would not be able to outslug teams this season as in past years, instead hoping improved run prevention would make up for offensive losses. But in a series loss to No. 3 South Carolina, and after being swept by No. 8 North Carolina, Clemson's pitching and defense have also struggled.
Clemson blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning Sunday against North Carolina before losing, 6-5, in 11 innings. The loss dropped Clemson to 1-5 in one-run games and 0-2 in extra-inning games.
Clemson committed four errors Saturday, another error Sunday, and has 20 errors in 13 games. The Tigers' bullpen blew late-inning leads on Saturday and Sunday. Still, Clemson coach Jack Leggett isn't pulling a panic lever as Tigers have fallen below .500 (6-7, 0-3 ACC) but have played a strong early-season schedule.
"We've been in this situation many times before, we've got a long ways to go," Leggett said. "We just have to play a little better defense. We didn't pitch well at the end."
Richie Shaffer, who has converted from first to third base this season, has made five errors through 13 games and had a key throwing error Saturday. Shaffer played third in high school and the team likes his athletic ability and arm. Shaffer's early struggles defensively might be a case of brushing rust off, getting re-familiarized with his internal defensive clock.
"I had more time than I realized," Shaffer said of his error Saturday. "(Throwing errors) are usually because my feet aren't set."
Jason Stolz is another infielder making a position change, switching from third base to shortstop. Leggett likes Stolz at shortstop, his natural position, but even the sure-handed Stolz has had some conversion hiccups, making an error Saturday.
"We are not getting blown out," Stolz said. "It seems there is one crucial point in every game we seem to struggle with."
It's not just the defense that has struggled. The Clemson bullpen continued to falter Sunday as Matt Campbell and Patrick Andrews combined to allow three runs in the ninth as North Carolina (13-2, 3-0) tied the score at 5, forcing extra innings where Mike Zolk had the game-winning hit in the 11th.
The pitching struggles have included the rotation where No. 2 starter Dominic Leone is still trying to find his command, walking three in four innings Saturday. Leone, who went 6-2 last year with a 3.70 ERA, is 5.71 this year and has walked 10 in 17 1/3 innings.
Clemson did have some positive indicators over the weekend: Kevin Pohle has made back-to-back quality starts as the Sunday starter, the Clemson offense has showed signs of warming, recording 26 hits over the weekend, and Kevin Brady looks like an ace with a 2.53 ERA and a 22-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season. The other good news for Clemson is it's still March.
"My freshman year (2010) we started really hot, got in a little dip, then finished strong," Shaffer said. "Last year, we started off kind of rough in the beginning and caught on in the middle.
"It's a very long season."