Clemson adjusts to depressed offense with “spectacular” defense
CLEMSON — Clemson baseball knows its blueprint for competitiveness, its path to the NCAA tournament in 2013, is not tied to outslugging opponents. The Tigers know Khalil Greene and Richie Shaffer are not walking into the clubhouse at Doug Kingsmore Stadium this season.
The Tigers know their success is tied to run prevention. And through two weeks, Clemson has featured excellent pitching and defense, shutting out Wright State for a second straight game, 7-0, Sunday to secure a series sweep.
Jack Leggett typically does not lavish praise and hyperbole upon his team often, but the veteran Clemson coach could find few flaws in his team’s defense to date.
“(The defense) has been pretty close to outstanding. It’s spectacular defense,” Leggett said. “Our infield has played extremely well and outfield has played really well.”
Clemson (5-1) should be excellent defensively as it has three players capable of playing center field and shortstop — premium defensive positions — in its lineup.
Freshmen outfielders Steven Duggar — who has run a 6.64 second 60-yard dash — and Maleeke Gibson are each athletic enough to play center field, but they manned the corners Sunday, flanking Thomas Brittle. Duggar, Baseball America’s No. 15 freshman, displayed enough arm for right field, throwing out two runners at home Sunday.
In the infield, Jay Baum and Steve Wilkerson have each played shortstop before, but they have given way to talented freshman shortstop Tyler Krieger. What it means is Clemson has three infielders with soft hands and smooth actions. The Tigers have four errors in six games and has a 2.50 staff ERA.
The stellar defensive play gives the Clemson staff more confidence to pitch to contact, which translates to fewer walks (18 in 54 innings) and more innings. Clemson starting pitcher Scott Firth threw eight shutout innings Sunday, inducing 13 groundouts.
“I think our pitchers really realized this weekend that we do have a good defense,” Leggett said, “so let’s just go ahead and put that ball in play and not walk anybody.”
Firth is making a case to stick in the weekend rotation even after Kevin Pohle is healthy enough to pitch.
After being a relief ace for Clemson last year, often throwing in the low to mid-90s, he has toned down his velocity and adrenaline to become effective in a starting role.
Clemson pitching coach Dan Pepicelli said Firth learned to pitch with more control and a more even-keel temperament while rehabbing a forearm injury this offseason.
“We’ve got him to be OK with just throwing at 90 percent,” Pepicelli said. “He doesn’t overthrow his pitches and he’s working down in the zone.”
Said Firth: “I told myself to stay within myself. My stuff is going to be good enough to get outs.”
No. 1 starter Daniel Gossett has made two quality starts (0.77 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 11 innings) and freshman Clate Schmidt made his first start Saturday and struggled with command but tossed four shutout innings. Clemson will start Gossett on Friday, Schmidt on Saturday and Firth on Sunday against South Carolina this weekend.
Clemson’s run prevention has been so good that the Tigers were no-hit for the first five innings Sunday and still held a one-run lead. Clemson’s offense has just two home runs in six games, but Wilkerson has hit well as expected, Duggar leads the team with three doubles and Baum opened Sunday’s game with a two-run double in the seventh.
Said Leggett: “We have to be that pitching-defense-timely-hitting-type team that everyone wants to be.”
So far, so good.Follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter: @travis_sawchik