CLEMSON – In four years since Monte Lee took over the Clemson baseball program, the Tigers have won ACC regular season and tournament titles, been to four consecutive NCAA regionals and hosted a regional three times.
But Lee has yet to take the Tigers to a super regional – something he was able to accomplish at College of Charleston with fewer resources and less talent on the field.
In 2018 the Tigers won 47 games – the most since 2006 – and captured the ACC’s Atlantic Division with the best record in the league. This year Clemson went 35-26.
The Tigers haven't won a regional tournament since 2010, which was also the last time they reached the College World Series.
Lee replaced Jack Leggett, who led the Tigers to eight super regionals and four College World Series appearances from 2000-10, because many felt Leggett had done all he could at Clemson.
“I knew the expectations when I got here,” Lee said. “Win the ACC, host a regional and super regional and get to Omaha. That’s the expectation and that’s my goal every year. I want to be around a program that expects to get to Omaha every year.”
Twenty-five games into this past season, it appeared the Tigers could have been one of those eight Omaha-bound teams. It just never happened.
“At times, it was the toughest season I’ve been through,” Lee said. “I’ve been through tough spurts, but nothing like this season. At the halfway point I thought we were on track to host a regional. We knew the back half of our schedule was tough, but we’d gotten off to such a good start, I didn’t see it coming.”
A trip to Tallahassee, Fla., and a weekend series with Florida State derailed what had once been a promising season.
Heading into the mid-April series with the Seminoles, Clemson was 28-5, ranked 13th in the country and already had a couple of impressive series wins. A sweep of North Carolina and two wins over Louisville – both of whom played in super regionals last weekend – highlighted a strong start for the Tigers. The only speed bump came in early March when the Tigers lost the series to South Carolina for the first time under Lee. Clemson had also not lost back-to-back games all season until they face Florida State.
The Seminoles thumped Clemson in three games, outscoring the Tigers 28-8. That started an eight-game losing streak.
“We went to Florida State and got punched in the face,” Lee said. “You are going to have those weekends where nothing goes right. Every team goes through that during the season. First half of the year we were very consistent. I think we went 30 games before we lost two games in a row. It took us a couple of weeks to get out of that funk.”
It was the toughest stretch of Lee’s coaching career. He e had trouble sleeping and lost 10 pounds as a result of the stress.
“I tried to remain calm and be as positive as I could,” Lee said. “I tried my best not to show any frustration. It was tough. I know the players could see it on my face. They could see the disappointment and frustration and I could see their disappointment and frustration, too.”
There were injuries, especially to the Tigers’ starting rotation, which Lee juggled all season. Spencer Strider, penciled in as the Tigers’ Friday night starter, and freshman Carter Raffield, who was going to be counted on heavily, both missed the season with injuries.
“The goal is to have the same starting rotation the first weekend of the season and the last weekend of the season,” Lee said. “If you can have that continuity through an entire season with the same rotation, pitchers can get into their roles and stick with those roles all season.”
Position players missed significant time as well. Michael Green, who hit .307 for the year, missed half the season before returning in May.
“It’s not an excuse,” Lee said. “Everyone has injuries that they have to deal with.”
Lee is already hard at work looking toward the 2020 season. There will be changes put in place during fall practice. Lee won’t spend as much time on evaluation and teaching his systems this fall. He will spend the majority of the fall focused on “situational baseball,” putting his players in pressure moments and seeing who responds.
“I want them to seize the moment,” Lee said. “Teams that win games get outs with runners on base and get hits with runners on base. That’s what the game has become.
“We are going to constantly put our guys under pressure and in situations where they have to deal with runners on base. That’s where we have to improve to be the kind of club that we really want to be.”
Bringing in the right recruits will be another key. Lee doesn’t want to panic and look for a quick fix, signing classes filled with junior college transfers. There has to be a balance.
“I think you have to have a mix,” Lee said. “The JUCO guys are able to step in and help you immediately, but they also bring a kind of blue collar work ethic and toughness that I like. High school kids are here for three or four years, so you get to develop them. I think there’s value in having both in your program, but you have got to have the right mix.”
One player that Lee believes could help the Tigers next spring is Bishop England left-handed pitcher Geoffrey Gilbert.
“He’s tough and he’s a winner,” Lee said. “He’s won at a high level and done it over a number of years. (Bishop England coach) Mike Darnell does a great job. From a make-up standpoint, he’s exactly the kind of player we want in our program.”
Lee knows that just getting to a regional isn’t enough. He has to take that next step and eventually make it to Omaha and a College World Series. He thinks this past season will actually help in that endeavor.
“Honestly, having gone through this, I think it’ll make me a better coach,” he said.