It was way back in early March that Clemson head coach Jack Leggett gushed for the first time about his “very exciting” freshman pitchers. Right-hander Clate Schmidt had just defeated mighty South Carolina in Greenville to even the 2013 series within one of college baseball’s best rivalries.
That the No. 17 Tigers have roared into the NCAA tournament national seed conversation with recent starry contributions from young pitchers not including Schmidt goes beyond excitement. It shows sustainable depth likely to last well beyond a season-ending ACC series beginning tonight at No. 9 Florida State.
Clemson’s earned run average is 2.88, the lowest since 1992 (2.86).
The starting rotation is made up of sophomore right-hander Daniel Gossett (8-3, 2.36 ERA), freshman left-hander Matthew Crownover (7-1, 1.90) and freshman left-hander Zach Erwin (5-0, 2.88).
Sophomore Patrick Andrews (2.25) and freshmen Jackson Campana (2.45) and Kyle Schnell (2.63) have ERAs below the team average. Schmidt is 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA.
Crownover arrives in Tallahassee, Fla., as the ACC pitcher of the week after 13 shutout innings last week in wins over Maryland and Georgia Southern.
“You know they’re good coming in but you wonder how fast they can adapt,” Clemson pitching coach Dan Pepicelli said, “because this is a totally different style of pitching, and some people adapt faster than others. We’re fortunate to have a good group with pretty good aptitude.”
The youth movement has allowed Clemson to bump senior co-captain Scott Firth and his lively fastball (89-95 mph) into the closer role.
“They all have a good future,” Leggett said. “They’ve been playing a prominent role. We have some good young players who can be really good players before it’s all over. But they all have to learn things along the way as well.”
Leggett said he is not surprised by his impact freshmen, including outfielders Maleeke Gibson and Steven Duggar, and shortstop Tyler Krieger.
“I thought this was going to happen,” he said. “This is a good class. We have some good kids coming in next year, too. It’s going to make for some good competition. These older guys better keep their heads on a swivel and keep on playing because our goal is to get better. Hopefully, they will see that there is a lot of good competition around them and play at a different level.”
Most Clemson observers see Gossett’s breakout game as the seven-inning performance against South Carolina in the 2012 Columbia Regional. The 6-0, 180-pound Lyman resident (Byrnes High School) gave up only two runs with eight strikeouts last June. He got a no-decision in a classic 12-inning Gamecocks victory.
Pepicelli says the “jump off” game was a week earlier.
“Daniel pitched against Virginia in the ACC tournament and he was really good (one run in 62/3 innings). He had been getting close, and then that really gave him a lot of confidence. But, yeah, that game at South Carolina was as intense as he’s going to find.”
It surely helped convince Perfect Game to name Gossett the No. 1 college prospect in South Carolina for the 2014 draft.
Crownover doesn’t throw as hard, but has been as consistently effective in a crafty lefty sort of way. Only 14 months after Tommy John surgery, the Ringgold, Ga., native is just getting comfortable.
“I’m about 60 percent,” Crownover said after blanking Georgia Southern last week with a career-high eight strikeouts over seven innings. “But I don’t worry much about velocity. I don’t have to throw 90, just work on strikes and location.”
Crownover likes the comparison to one of his favorite pitchers, former Braves ace Tom Glavine, another lanky lefty. Not much argument from Maryland and Georgia Southern players, who combined to hit .159 against Crownover.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff.