Misjudged fly balls cost Clemson on Opening Day

CLEMSON – Over the course of a long baseball season, teams will find all kinds of ways to win and lose.

For all new Clemson coach Monte Lee and his players know, they’re about to embark on a long, strange journey this 2016 season, if Opening Day was any indication. It all begins with a disheartening 4-3 defeat to Maine Friday, the Tigers’ fourth loss in five season openers at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

The backbreaker was two misplayed fly balls, both charged as hits in the scorebook but really the culprit of outfielders unable to locate the ball in the twilight sky.

“There’s about a five- to ten-minute span in the middle of most 4 o’clock games where you can’t see anything,” second baseman Weston Wilson said. “It’s tough. I don’t think any of the three outfielders or myself saw the ball.”

With the score tied at 3 in the top of the seventh, and daylight giving way to dusk, Maine shortstop Jeremy Pena’s one-out offering sailed over the head of Clemson left fielder Drew Wharton, who hesitated off the flight of the ball and allowed Pena a double.

Then after Tigers reliever Alex Eubanks struck out Tyler Schwanz, cleanup hitter Brett Chappell popped one into right center field, appearing to end the inning. Except center fielder Chase Pinder and right fielder Seth Beer never saw it, and the ball fell carelessly to the turf for an RBI triple easily scoring Pena. Clemson could not respond with the equalizer in the final three innings.

“It’s just that time of night. Any time you’re getting to where it’s close to being dark out there, it’s tough to see, and we’ve seen it in practice,” said Clemson coach Monte Lee, losing his first game guiding the Tigers. “We’re not going to make excuses for anything. It’s part of the game. Just tough luck on our part.”

Twice the Tigers (0-1) had a chance to tie or win the ballgame, with the right guys at the plate. Pinder, Clemson’s leadoff hitter, drew a leadoff walk after the seventh-inning stretch, but shortstop Eli White, designated hitter Reed Rohlman and catcher Chris Okey went down in order and could not advance Pinder past first.

Then in the ninth, the bases were loaded for Okey, giving last year’s first-team All-American a chance to win the game with a base hit. But Okey struck out swinging, allowing Maine (1-0) to celebrate jubilantly on the field for picking up the program’s second win in 24 games vs. Clemson.

“You feel really good when you’ve got the middle of the order coming up and we’ve got guys on base,” Lee said. “We tried to get the tying and winning run to the plate, and we did that. But you’ve got to give Maine credit for making pitches and making plays.”

White, Rohlman and Okey, the three players who along with Lee are featured on the Tigers’ 2016 media guide, combined to go 1-for-12 with six strikeouts Friday. Rohlman did stroke an RBI double in the first inning, when Clemson took a 2-0 lead it couldn’t hold.

“We had our chances,” Lee said. “We just couldn’t come up with that big punch when we needed it.”

Clemson was 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and only produced four hits overall. Two were infield singles by Wilson.

The Tigers spoiled a solid pitching effort by Opening Day starter Charlie Barnes (5 1/3 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER) and Eubanks (3 2/3 IP, 3 H, ER.) Barnes and Eubanks each struck out seven Black Bears and only walked one batter.

“Me and Charlie are very similar in the way we pitch; I’m just right-handed and he’s left-handed,” Eubanks said. “I can kind of offer a different look whenever I come in after him from the right side.”

Maine was 24-28 last season, losing its first three games of the 2015 campaign to Wisconsin-Milwaukee by a combined score of 33-10.

Former Clemson head coach Jack Leggett, who was fired last June after 22 seasons at the helm and replaced by Lee, attended Opening Day. Leggett, a Maine alum, and a companion sat in the second row immediately next to the Tigers’ dugout, close to Clemson’s new coaching staff.

The teams will take to the field Saturday at 2 p.m. for the second of three games this weekend. Clemson senior right-hander Clate Schmidt, who was diagnosed with and beat lymphoma last summer, is slated to start.