CLEMSON - It's been a never-ending game of "can you top this?" for Clemson starting pitchers Matthew Crownover and Daniel Gossett.
START 'EM UP
Clemson record in games started by each pitcher:
Matthew Crownover 10-5
Daniel Gossett 9-5
Clate Schmidt 5-3
ALL OTHERS 12-10
On the mound, in the gym, playing ping-pong, wherever and whatever.
"Since the beginning of the season, me and Crown were always in the weight room, during conditioning, we're always fighting," Gossett said. "We're going to try to beat each other, because we knew it was going to be us fighting for one and two. So I've used him for motivation."
Crownover and Gossett, with their ERAs slimmer than the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee, give Clemson a fighting chance. If new No. 3 starter Clate Schmidt packs his hot streak for Nashville, the Tigers (36-23) have hope - hope they can escape that dastardly NCAA regional that's recently been a blockade to Omaha.
"I feel like we've got a chance to win anytime we're out there," Crownover said. "We know how to get outs. I feel like it's the break we needed just to get in (the tournament), so hopefully we play well as a team and get some wins."
Crownover (8-5, 2.26 ERA) will get the ball Friday at 1 p.m. ET against No. 18 Oregon (42-18); Gossett awaits his Saturday time and opponent, either bottom seed Xavier or top seed and regional host Vanderbilt.
"Both of them are No. 1 pitchers for us," head coach Jack Leggett said. "Obviously we want to stay in the winner's bracket. There's really not much decision to be made there, other than who's the better match-up against Oregon."
Good luck, Ducks. In 29 career starts, Crownover's been charged with more than two earned runs just four times, and more than three earned runs once - when Wake Forest touched him up for four runs March 15, a game the Tigers won regardless.
And now, the sophomore lefty who speaks quietly (but strongly) is flush with motivation. The way his freshman year concluded didn't sit right with Crownover, lasting just four innings in a 2013-ending defeat to Liberty in the Columbia regional.
"(My arm) was dead at the end of the year. I think I can go more than four innings this time," Crownover said. "We really only had Goose out there pitching last year. So I'm healthy, Clate's got another year of experience, so we've got more starters who have been in big situations."
Whether the Tigers' longtime ace starts on Friday or Saturday just hasn't mattered to the junior Gossett (7-1, 1.78), who these days is glad to discuss just about any subject except the 2015 season - which could see Gossett leap to a minor-league system if he chooses to enter the June draft.
In a preseason sitdown with Dan Pepicelli, the Tigers' pitching coach coaxed his most talented pupil to worry about the next pitch and the next game, and let professional prospects play themselves out.
"I try to stay away from that," Gossett said. "As soon as I get into that, there's extra emotional pressure. I don't want to be a part of that. There's enough pressure out there to perform in a regional; I don't want to put any more on my back."
Pepicelli elected to hold Gossett to a potential showdown with No. 19 Vanderbilt (41-18). The strategy paid off in the ACC tournament, when Gossett stood toe-to-toe in game two against regular-season champion Miami - but it only works because of Crownover's steady hand.
"You don't ever feel bad about either one of them," Pepicelli said. "They pound the zone, they work quick, and they supremely believe in what they do."
Then there's Schmidt (5-7, 3.68), who's in line to start Sunday's game provided Clemson wins at least one of its first two games at Hawkins Field. Since a poor start April 22 vs. Liberty, Schmidt owns a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings scattered over his last five outings, including three starts - most recently working into the ninth inning Friday against Georgia Tech.
"I think getting Clate Schmidt to step up gives us more innings," Pepicelli said.
The Clemson lineup is among the ACC's best, but it has been inconsistent and now faces the prospect of top staffs with Oregon and Vanderbilt. Hence, the need for Clemson's rotation to do its part.
"When me and Goose throw out there, and Clate throws to his ability," Crownover said, "we've got a chance to beat anybody. Hopefully we show up like we know we're capable, and give somebody a run for their money."