Clemson pitcher Mat Clark

Clemson pitcher Mat Clark is 9-2 this season for the Tigers. Provided/Brian Hennessy/Clemson athletics

CLEMSON – Mat Clark was struggling in the bullpen.

Warming up minutes before Clemson’s ACC Tournament game against nationally-ranked Louisville, Clark just couldn’t seem to find the strike zone.

Clark, a 6-0, 185-pound sophomore, couldn't afford to have a bad day. Clemson was in jeopardy of not making the NCAA baseball tournament for the first time in more than a decade. 

Two days earlier Clemson lost a one-run game to Boston College in extra innings. A second loss in the ACC tournament could sink the Tigers’ postseason hopes.

To compound matters, Clark was to face Louisville's Reid Detmers, who just four days earlier had been named the ACC’s Pitcher of the Year. Detmers struck out 138 batters in 89 innings during the regular season.

“Reid Detmers is the best pitcher in the ACC and it’s not even close,” said Clemson coach Monte Lee. “When you look at it going into that day, our season is probably on the line and Louisville is playing for a national seed.”

Once the game started, however, all the anxiety of Clark’s bullpen session seemed to disappear. His first pitch to Cardinals leadoff hitter Lucas Dunn was a fastball for a called strike.

“I was locked in from that point on,” Clark said.

Clark was masterful over the next eight innings, giving up just one hit – a solo home run in the ninth inning – in a 7-1 victory. The win all but sealed the Tigers NCAA bid and this weekend they are playing in the Oxford Regional in Missississippi. The No. 3 seed Tigers take on No. 2 Illinois on Friday (4 p.m., ESPNU). 

“We knew we were going to need an unbelievable start from Mat Clark and he was the best version of himself that day,” Lee said. “With the season on the line, Mat was as good as he could be and deserves all the credit for us continuing our season. I’m not sure if that win secured our spot or not, I never felt like we were a true bubble team, but I know it helped.”

Clark, who has been the Tigers' most consistent starter this spring, seemed like an unlikely hero when the season started. As a redshirt freshman, Clark had mostly been used out of the bullpen. He put up impressive numbers in his first season with the Tigers, compiling a 4-0 mark and a 1.69 earned run average in 19 appearances. But an elbow injury to starter Spencer Strider forced Lee to juggle his rotation this season.

“Spencer ate up a lot of innings for us, he was going to be our Friday night starter,” Clark said. “I knew everyone on the staff was going to have that next man up mentality.”

Clark was still coming out of the bullpen until early March when he started against North Carolina, picking up the win in a 17-3 game.

“I got my opportunity and ran with it,” Clark said.

Clark, who is 9-2 with a team-low 2.84 earned run average, doesn’t have overpowering stuff – his fastball is normally clocked in the mid-80s. It’s his control of the strike zone and unflappable demeanor on the mound that has kept hitters off balance all season.

“We call him Maty-ice for a reason,” said Clemson all-ACC shortstop Logan Davidson. “Nothing seems to bother him. Sometimes you are like, ‘how is this guy getting outs because he’s throwing 83 mile-per-hour.’ But he throws barrels, cutters, change-ups, he’s a crafty lefty. He just goes out there and gets outs for us. He’s fun to play behind.’”

Lee said Clark’s release point is the key to his success.

“If you look at it from an analytics perspective, he releases the ball very low,” Lee said. “His 85 mile-per-hour fastball is up because he’s throws from such a flat plane. Hitters swing underneath his fastball. His fastball looks like it’s rising. His breaking ball has a serious late break to it. His breaking ball, breaks over the plate and not in front of the plate. A lot of times batters are going to commit to that pitch and swing at the ball, but the bottom is falling out.

“He can also locate his fastball to either side of the plate. A lot of guys can only pitch to one side of the plate. His fastball cuts when he throws it to one side of the plate and sinks when he throws it to the other side.”

Clark is expected to start Saturday when Clemson plays either No. 1 seed Mississippi or No. 4 Jacksonville State.

“I think we’re playing our best baseball right now,” Clark said. “We’ve proven we can play with anyone in the country. We just need to have the same energy we had during the ACC Tournament and I think we’ll be fine.”

Reach Andrew Miller at 843-937-5599. Follow him on Twitter @APMILLER_PandC

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