Clemson coach Monte Lee knew eventually that the Tigers' bullpen would play a key role this weekend during the NCAA's Oxford Regional.
What Lee probably didn’t know was that the bullpen would come through so soon.
Kyle Wilkie had a career-high four hits and drove in three runs and Davis Sharpe pitched the final 62/3 innings in his first career relief appearance to lead Clemson to an 8-4 victory over Illinois in the opening game of the Oxford Regional at Swayze Field in Oxford, Miss., on Friday afternoon.
The Tigers (35-24) will take on the winner of the Mississippi-Jacksonville State on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the winners’ bracket. The Fighting Illini dropped to 36-20.
Before leaving for Mississippi, Lee said he wouldn’t hesitate going to his bullpen in Game 1 of the regional if the situation warranted it.
“Winning that first game is so important in a regional, so I'm going to do whatever is necessary to win that first game,” Lee said earlier in the week.
With starter Jacob Hennessey struggling at the start of the game, Lee quickly called upon Davis, who had started 14 games for the Tigers this season.
“In Game 1 of a regional, you have to do things like that in a tight ball game to win it,” Lee said. “You have to seize the moment, whether that’s at the plate or on the mound, you have to seize the moment. I felt like we were the better team at seizing the moment with Davis on the mound. Illinois did an outstanding squaring up Hennessy, so we had to go to Davis."
Sharpe (7-4) used a mixture of fastballs, changeups and curveballs to keep the Illinois off balance and earn the win, giving up three hits, one run, while striking out three batters.
“I was just pounding the strike zone,” Davis said. “I was using my fastball and changeup in the first three innings, and then I finally found my curveball. It was a three-pitch mix for the last three innings. My fastball was moving like usual and I trusted my defense - they made some great plays behind me.”
In the top of the first inning, Wilkie ripped a two-out, run-scoring single to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
Zac Taylor responded with an RBI groundout in the bottom of the first, and Branden Comia laced a two-out, run-scoring single in the second inning as the Illini grabbed a 2-1 lead.
Michael Green led off the top of the third inning with his third home run of the season to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, then Grayson Byrd blasted a two-run homer, his 16th of the season and 11th in the last 16 games. Illinois plated a run in the bottom of the third inning on Cam McDonald's single to narrow Clemson's lead to 4-3.
“We talked all season about responding and they’d gotten a couple of runs, so it was big for Mike to hit that home run to tie it back up,” Byrd said. “I’m up there and just trying to put a good swing on a pitch and I thought it was going foul, I think the wind kind of kept it in, but I’ll take it.”
In the seventh inning, the Tigers loaded the bases with no outs, then Wilkie hit a two-run single. Later in the frame, Byrd scored on a fielder's choice. Clemson added a run in the eighth inning on Byrd's third hit of the game.
“Michael Green has been on fire in the last 10 or 12 games, ever since he’s been back in our lineup,” Lee said. “Byrd has been the best hitter in the country over the last 15 games. When you’re getting the kind of production we got one through four in the lineup, you are going to score runs.”
Using just two pitchers could be a key for the Tigers as the regional continues.
“David Sharpe was outstanding coming out of the bullpen, maybe a little earlier than we would have liked too, but we felt like at that time it was the right time,” Lee said. “We felt like offensively we were in good shape and we were going to score some runs today. We were able to stretch Davis out and not use anyone else in our bullpen. We played great defensively, had a huge double play in the middle innings to get us off the field and overall, just a great game.”