CLEMSON BASEBALL PREVIEW: Tigers set sights on Omaha
CLEMSON - Jack Leggett kinda, sorta called out his hitters in his final press conference of the 2013 Clemson baseball season.
"Players got to step up. It's as simple as that. I think that's it," Leggett said after the Tigers' 3-1 season-ending NCAA regional loss to Liberty on June 3.
"We've got some really good players. 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."
Leggett's rant was mostly out of emotion. The big bats faltered to a 1-for-14 clip with runners in scoring position in a win-or-go-home environment. Leggett called situational hitting "an Achilles' heel" throughout the year.
Clemson was actually closer to the ACC's middle of the pack in runs scored and RBIs (seventh in both) than batting average (ninth), reflecting a little more clutch-ness than it might seem. But there's no denying the Tigers were streaky in 2013, their ultimate undoing.
"It's all about the mindset. We've talked about it throughout the fall and the spring this year; that's something that kind of bit us in the rear end last year," sophomore right fielder Steven Duggar said. "It wasn't about getting hits; it was getting hits at the right time. It's all about situational hitting and driving guys in."
Duggar and catcher Garrett Boulware were at that season-ending press conference, hearing Leggett's slicing words. It doesn't offend Duggar, calling the criticism "the truth."
"We talk about pitching and defense is a huge part of the game, and it is," Duggar said, "but at the end of the day, you've got to put up runs to win. That's just the bottom line."
Duggar and Boulware headline an experienced roster for the 2014 campaign, which to start will only be missing center fielder Thomas Brittle (graduation) and designated hitter Shane Kennedy (knee injury).
Kennedy, Clemson's batting champ in 2013, is expected to attempt his return sometime in late April after suffering a torn ACL in the fall.
The Tigers' top six run producers are all back in a Clemson uniform, but nothing's guaranteed on Leggett's lineup card.
"I don't think there's anything that hasn't been laid out in front of them in practice, and that's, keep your head on a swivel, keep working hard, because somebody's pushing you," Leggett said. "Doesn't matter where you come from, what year in school you are, or what position you play. I'm looking for the best players who can help us win."
Primarily, the Tigers are laden with infield talent, and they added to that with freshmen like catcher Chris Okey, shortstop Eli White, infielder Weston Wilson and first baseman Andrew Cox. Leggett suggests this is "maybe one of the best infield depths" he's had in his 21 years as head coach.
"Everybody's got to play a little bit better than they played last year," Leggett said. "The returning players have to play better, so the younger guys are going to push them. If they don't, then the younger guys will be ready to play."
It also helps having the ace back. Daniel Gossett, a preseason third-team Louisville Slugger All-American, will be the starting pitcher in Clemson's opener Friday against Eastern Michigan, as well as most if not all Friday nights in ACC series openers.
"For sure, he's earned it. He's one of those guys that shoulders that responsibility really well," Leggett said. "Knowing he goes out there for us in the first game of a series for us is nice, because you know he's gonna battle, he's gonna throw strikes, he's got pretty good stuff."
Southpaw Matthew Crownover is two years removed from Tommy John surgery, prepping for increased innings in 2014 after leading Clemson with a 2.19 ERA last spring. Zack Erwin figures as the front-runner as the No. 3 starter, though East Tennessee State transfer Jake Long and freshman lefty Alex Bostic will be in the mix as well.
In his first two decades leading Clemson, Leggett's never gone more than three years without taking the Tigers to the College World Series. For the fifth time in 20 years, Leggett's Tigers face the pressure to not let that drought go to four years.
"It's always a motivating tool. You lose the last game of every year unless you win a national championship, so it's very tough to do," Leggett said. "Whether you lose in a regional, super regional or Omaha, it always stinks getting on the bus and starting over again."
Not one player in a Clemson uniform this spring has played in a College World Series.
"Every year, the goal and the expectation is to get to Omaha and compete for a national championship," Duggar said. "I think we've got the right coaches, the right mindsets, to get there and complete that."