CLEMSON -- With Kevin Brady slowly healing from a March forearm injury, it appeared Clemson had lost its newfound ace and perhaps the ability to advance deep into the postseason. But as the No. 18 Tigers (37-16, 15-12 ACC) travel to No. 4 Florida State (39-13, 18-9) today to begin a key three-game series -- Clemson remains on the NCAA regional hosting bubble -- Clemson has another front-line starter emerging in Dominic Leone.
The sophomore left-hander has made five straight quality starts, owning a 1.78 ERA over that stretch. In his last 35 1/3 innings pitched, he has struck out 40 batters while walking 12.
The education of an ace has occurred over the last year for Leone.
As a true freshman last spring, with Clemson running low on arms, a struggling Leone was summoned to start a do-or-die Game 3 in the super regional against Alabama. The Clemson staff did not think the moment was too big for the competitive Leone.
"He's an aggressive kid," Clemson pitching coach Dan Pepicelli said. "One thing you can always count on is he is always going to be aggressive. I'm never worried about that part of his game."
Leone sat awake in his bedroom for several hours the night before the start last spring, thinking about the enormity of the moment. But when he arrived at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, he followed his routine, sitting quietly alone at his locker before the game and going over scouting reports. He tossed 5 2/3 quality innings to pick up the win and send Clemson to the College World Series.
"I have my own pregame ritual," Leone said. "I sit down alone and try to block everything else out and try to focus on opponent. As I have matured, I've learned how to keep that mentality ... (beating Alabama) was a real confidence booster."
The education continued this spring as he overcame a shoulder strain early in the year, using the rehab time to sharpen his offspeed pitches and strengthen his arm.
The work showed up last weekend when Leone beat Virginia Tech without his signature fastball command. Instead, he relied on improved command and confidence in his changeup. Such a victory, he says, would not have been possible a year ago.
While he's increased his velocity by 5 mph -- now consistently throwing 89-93 mph -- and improved his secondary offerings, the competitiveness to handle the big stage has always existed.
Perhaps it comes from the football roots in his family -- his uncles and father all played. Or perhaps it can be attributed to Leone feeling a "need to prove something" after receiving few big-time offers out of high school due to his marginal, 5-11, 180-pound frame.
"I've always been a competitive kid," Leone said. "I've always strived for perfection."
Leone will get his chance over the next several weeks to prove he deserves the ace label. Clemson competes for a No. 1 hosting seed against Florida State and in the ACC tournament and then for a bigger prize in the NCAA tournament.
Leone could soon be joined by another potential front-line arm.
Kevin Brady returned to the mound Wednesday after missing 10 weeks with an arm injury. After dominating before the injury (23 strikeouts/1 walk, 1.10 ERA, in 19 innings), Brady pitched one perfect inning against Davidson, striking out one batter.
Pepicelli said the staff does not have a plan yet for Brady, though ideally he'd rejoin the rotation and get back to touching 95 mph.
"He threw the ball well, but he's still not 100 percent," Pepicelli said. "He still has a long way to go from where he was."