GREENVILLE – Fairy tales end at midnight. Jack Leggett’s latest dream started around that time.
At this point, such customary privileges like making the NCAA tournament, comfortable job security with a freshly-mounted American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame plaque on the wall, and the mere courtesy of his team not getting booed by their own fans when trailing 10-0 to an also-ran are long gone.
Even though Clemson won Tuesday night – to those sane folks who stopped paying attention after two innings, yes, Clemson won – the rest of the regular season, which concludes this weekend at No. 9 Florida State, is irrelevant.
All that matters to the 28-25 Tigers, truly, is succeeding the following week at the ACC Tournament, and in this case, second place really does mean the first loser. Success only can be quantified by returning home from Durham with a champion’s trophy and automatic ticket-punch to an NCAA regional.
To Clemson’s longtime head coach, that’s not fantasy. It’s reality. Speaking to reporters as the clock literally struck midnight, Leggett wasn’t loopy from having watched 487 pitches thrown (282 by Furman) in four hours, 42 minutes of mediocre baseball. He means what he says when he talks about beating FSU and winning the ACC.
“We’ve got to play to win. No fear of failure, reckless abandon and don’t hold things back,” Leggett said. “We’ve got to play a little bit better, but we’ve got some toughness about us with our backs are against the wall. We’re banding together, hoping people jump with us and give us some positive momentum.”
Leggett does believe in miracles, yes. They do happen. How else to explain Clemson flipping a 10-run deficit into a 10-run lead, and ultimately a 23-15 victory over Furman at Fluor Field Tuesday night?
The start was inexplicable – four errors in two innings tells that tale. When center fielder Tyler Slaton carelessly let a single slip under his glove and turn into a two-base error; when shortstop Eli White rutted a routine inning-ending throw to first base; when pitcher Clate Schmidt allowed the cartoonish defense to bother him and surrendered a seven-run second inning ... the Tigers, these teens and 21-year-olds on partial or no scholarships, were facing every athlete’s most hated four-letter word that starts with Q.
It looked like the Tigers had quit – and Leggett would have been asked if he agreed, if not for a stunning comeback.
“The first couple innings, I’m thinking, this is not going so good. Gotta stop the bleeding,” Leggett said. “Then it’s 10-3, then it’s 10-6, then we got to 10-8, 10-9 ...
“We played a really poor two innings,” Leggett continued, “but I’m really proud of how we battled back. It would have been really easy to feel sorry for ourselves and pack it in.”
Instead, behind catcher Chris Okey’s pep talk in the second inning backed up by his two-run, five-RBI night, Clemson could feel good about itself after playing its last game this season in the state of South Carolina.
“I’m all in on this team,” Leggett said. “I’m all in on trying to get us to play our best baseball at the end, trying to put us in a position to maybe get in the tournament, and not interested right now in anything else.”
There is so much else, some of which Leggett sees and hears, much of it he refuses to. The chief narrative this year, in all corners of the attention paid to Clemson baseball – fans, media, message boards and the athletic director’s office – has been the employment of the team’s head coach.
It’s been less about legacy – Tuesday was career win No. 1,328, and No. 951 with Clemson, and those six Omaha trips haven’t vanished from the record books – but more about losses, which have piled up in uncharacteristic fashion cumulatively each of the past five seasons.
“I just look at it like this: my job is to get these guys to play their best baseball right now. I’m focused on that,” Leggett said. “These kids are busting their rear ends every single day. They are loyal. They believe. We believe in them. They’re smart kids. They see things.
“But give them positive energy – if you’re a Clemson fan or Clemson person, support your team, and that’s the way it should be. If it’s not like that, then we can’t bother with that, because you’ve got to think about how you’re going to win the game.”
Soon, Leggett will have to discuss the future of Clemson baseball with his boss, Dan Radakovich, for the second straight summer. Radakovich retained Leggett last year under the premise of improvement, so barring a fairy-tale run in Durham next week, it’s expected it will be time for Leggett to move on.
For the here and now, Leggett’s only concern is doing what he can on the field to restore Clemson’s program to a proud state.
“I always believe in everything we do. I believe in how we prepare,” Leggett said. “Sometimes you don’t play as well as you prepare. Sometimes things don’t fall into place all the time. To be honest with you, we need a positive vibe around these guys, because it helps them.
“We just need to band together and believe in these guys, because these kids give everything they’ve got. If everybody would be forging ahead in the same spot, I think that’s the most important thing.”