COLUMBIA — The closing battle was bitter, but the season-long war was sweet by reasonable expectations.
Veteran baseball coach Jack Leggett made his admission in the days leading up to Clemson’s NCAA regional assignment: teams are judged by how they finish, not how they start.
True, the playoffs have a way of defining overall seasons, and three years straight the Tigers have failed to reach a super regional — the longest drought during Leggett’s tenure.
However, despite a 1-7 finishing mark that contained five losses in six ACC and national tournament games, Leggett was relatively upbeat after the Tigers’ closeout 3-1 loss Sunday to Liberty.
“I’m not going to sit here and dwell on the negative of losing the last whatever games in a row,” Leggett said. “We played some very tough games, been in some tough games lately.
“I’m not inclined to try to talk about that all that much as I’d like to think about the whole body of work and where we’re going from here.”
The two players seated to Leggett’s right at the team’s final postgame press conference were emblematic of Clemson’s youth. Sophomore catcher Garrett Boulware, freshman third baseman Steven Duggar and five other everyday starters are scheduled to return in 2014.
Six freshmen — including pitcher Zach Erwin — were in the lineup against Liberty in the NCAA opener Friday.
Other than outgoing senior right-handed relievers Scott Firth and Jonathan Meyer, and situational lefty Joseph Moorefield, the entire arsenal of arms still has eligibility.
“We’re going to get back to Clemson, we’re going to regroup, do everything we can in the fall … there will be some new guys in next year that can help us out some,” Duggar said. “Just continue to get better and maybe this time next year, we’ll be celebrating.”
So even though it stung not to settle things with South Carolina — which went on to win its regional without ever playing Clemson — Leggett was satisfied with his view of 2013.
A team that was expected to finish third in the ACC Atlantic Division standings behind North Carolina State and Florida State did just that. But a divisional crown ended up barely out of reach; flip a 2-1 losing result at Florida State on May 17, and the Tigers, Seminoles and Wolfpack each would have recorded 19 conference wins.
Clemson (40-22) spent the first half of the year unranked, changing when an 11-game winning streak — ignited by an 11-inning win at top-ranked North Carolina to conclude a series in Chapel Hill — rose the Tigers to No. 12 in the country. The Tigers also won nine straight from May 6-16, their last real hurrah.
“I’m going to choose to look at this as a really positive year and a positive future,” Leggett said Sunday. “Those real positive Clemson people that we have, I hope are feeling really good about what we have ahead of us.”
The schedule did a young squad no favors. Thirty out of 62 games were against NCAA tournament teams, yielding a 12-18 record. Road series at UNC, N.C. State, Miami and Florida State made the journey that much more difficult.
The hands-on experience didn’t pay off in clutch moments, though. Outside of a 10-2 trouncing of Saint Louis on Saturday, the Tigers scored just four runs in their final 33 innings after UNC put up an ACC tournament five-run ninth inning to tie what would have been another upset of the Tar Heels, who will host South Carolina in this weekend’s super regional.
“Players got to step up. It’s as simple as that. I think that’s it,” Leggett said. “Getting big hits in big situations is why they pay those RBI guys in the big leagues their money; they can relax and take care of their business. That’s why you pay the closer, because he’s got to come in for clutch situations and do his thing.
“It’s a matter of getting a little more seasoned, a little more experienced, a little more confidence going.”
The way Clemson went down will stick with the Tigers; even though that’s the case any season goals aren’t reached.
“If you have any competitive juices at all in your body, you’ll always remember these things,” Leggett said. “It’s always a motivating factor because nobody wants to feel like this. It’s in your DNA, it’s what you think about every single day of your life. These kids care.”