Clemson left-hander Mat Clark will pitch this weekend during the NCAA Tournament’s Oxford Regional.
It's not a matter of if, but when and against what team.
The last time Clark took the mound for the Tigers, he was masterful against Louisville in the ACC Tournament, giving up one hit over eight innings in a 7-1 victory over the Cardinals. At 9-2, he’s been the Tigers most reliable starter down the stretch, giving up just four earned runs over his last 20-2/3 innings.
But as the Tigers prepare to face Illinois on Friday in the opening game of the Oxford Regional, Clemson coach Monte Lee still hasn't settled on Clark as his starter. Lee said that decision won't be made until later in the week when he has a chance to scout the Illini and sit down with the rest of his coaching staff. The 4 p.m. game will be televised by ESPNU.
Coastal Carolina, which captured the Sun Belt’s automatic bid by winning the tournament title over the weekend, will face Auburn on Friday in the Atlanta Regional. The game, which starts at noon, will be televised nationally by ESPNU.
At least one team from South Carolina has made the NCAA Tournament since 1973.
The decision on the Tigers' starter isn't as clear-cut as it appears. Lee said Jacob Hennessy and Davis Sharpe have also shown flashes of brilliance during the season.
“Those three will be in that conversation,” Lee said Monday. “We have to decide as a coaching staff, who we’re going to go with in Game 1 and Game 2. Mat Clark will start one of them, whether that’s Game 1 or Game 2, I don’t know. Mat’s obviously going to pitch. You have to look at Illinois and figure out what’s the best matchup against them.”
When Spencer Strider, the Tigers’ projected top starter, went down with an elbow injury before the season started, Lee had to juggle his starting rotation and spent most of the season in search of a No. 1 starter.
The Tigers' starting pitching has been consistently inconsistent. Clemson’s team ERA is 4.39, which is seventh in the ACC. The last two years, Lee has put together elite pitching staffs that have been ranked near the top of the ACC. A year ago, the Tigers’ ERA was 3.65, good for third in the conference.
“Whenever we get a quality start from our pitchers, like six or seven innings and a couple of runs, that’s when we’ve been really tough to beat,” said Clemson catcher Kyle Wilkie. “When our starters can get deep into the game, it helps us out at the plate, too. We tend to get more quality at bats and can focus on good approaches.”
The logical choice appears to be Clark, but Hennessy is also in the mix to throw on Friday against Illinois.
“Jacob has been very consistent throughout the year,” Lee said. “When he’s been able to mix in his slider and changeup, he’s been really effective for us. When he’s got command of his slider, he’s really good. It’s really important for Jacob to be able to throw three pitches. You have to look at what’s the best scenario wise to win the regional. We obviously know how important winning Game 1 is, but you also want to put yourself in a position to win the regional, too.”
There were no guarantees that the Tigers would even make the 64-team field in this year’s tournament. Despite their relatively high RPI (rating index percentage) ranking at No. 38, Clemson was still considered a bubble team until their victory over Louisville in the ACC Tournament last week.
The Tigers were 15-15 in the ACC but swept North Carolina and took two of three games from Louisville during the regular season – teams that ended up being regional hosts. The Tar Heels won the ACC Tournament.
“There’s always a level of nervousness and worry as a coach that’s on the bubble, it’s never a 100 percent guarantee,” Lee said. “We looked at the metrics after the Louisville win and felt like we were in good shape and in the whole time, but you never know. The committee looks at all the factors and they look at all the metrics of all the teams and they felt like we were worthy of being in field of 64 and certainly grateful that they felt that way.”
When teams like Florida and TCU popped up on the television before the Tigers, Wilkie started to get a little nervous.
“When you start seeing teams like Florida and TCU get in, you start to wonder because maybe they took our spot,” Wilkie said. “So when our name popped up there, I think a huge weight was lifted off of our shoulders and everyone was just so excited about getting to play some more.”
Wilkie said it was the win over the Cardinals has given the Tigers plenty of momentum headed into the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the win over Louisville gave us a lot of confidence,” said Wilkie, who hit .293 and drove in 37 runs this season. “I know it’s just one game, one win, but beating them showed that we can play and beat anyone in the nation.”
Getting out of the Oxford Regional and advancing to a super regional won’t be easy for the Tigers. Mississippi, the No. 12 national seed, advanced to the SEC’s championship game over the weekend against Vanderbilt, the No. 2 overall seed in this year’s tournament, losing 11-10 on the Commodores’ final at bat. Jacksonville State has an elite starting pitcher in Garrett Farmer, who struck out more than 100 batters and is the Ohio Valley Conference pitcher of the year.
As a team, the Illini won six straight Big Ten series to end the season and is one of the top defensive teams in the country with a .982 fielding percentage, good enough for third nationally. Teams are hitting just .217 against their pitchers, and Garrett Acton’s 19 saves leads the nation.
“You gotta believe that every team you are going to face at this point in the season is going to be good,” Wilkie said. “Everyone goes in with a clean slate, no matter if they are a one seed or a four seed.”
No. 1 Ole Miss
Location: Oxford, Miss.
Head Coach: Mike Bianco (19th season)
Players to Watch: SS Grae Kessinger (.336, 5 HRs, 46 RBIs); 3B Tyler Keenan (.276, 13 HRs, 60 RBIs); LHP Doug Nikhazy (7-3, 3.17 ERA, 1.22 whip); RHP Parker Caracci (5.16 ERA, 11 saves, 1.44 whip).
The Skinny: Ole Miss is the No. 12 national seed in this year’s tournament. … lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game, 11-10.
No. 2 Illinois
Location: Champaign, Ill.
Conference: Big Ten
Head Coach: Dan Hartleb (14th season)
Players to Watch: OF Zac Taylor (.331, 10 HRs, 28 RBIs); 2B Michael Massey (.325, 5 HRs, 27 RBIs); LHP Andy Fisher (7-1, 2.57 ERA, 89 Ks); RHP Garrett Acton (2-3, 2.23 ERA, 19 saves).
The Skinny: Illinois had was ranked No. 28 in the latest RPI, which was tops in the Big Ten. They were 11-6 against teams in the Top-50 of the RPI and won six straight Big Ten series to end the season.
No. 3 Clemson
Head Coach: Monte Lee (4th season)
Players to Watch: OF Grayson Bryd (.315, 15 HR, 56 RBIs); SS Logan Davidson (.296, 15 HR, 55 RBIs); RHP Davis Sharpe (6-4, 3.48 ERA, 80 Ks); LHP Mat Clark (9-2, 2.84 ERA).
The Skinny: The Tigers were in jeopardy of not making the NCAA Tournament field until their victory over Louisville in the ACC Tournament. … The Tigers swept North Carolina and won 2 of 3 games against Louisville during the regular season, both national seeds.
No. 4 Jacksonville State
Location: Jacksonville, Ala.
Conference: Ohio Valley Conference.
Head Coach: Jim Case (17th season)
Players to Watch: C Nic Gaddis (.337, 13 HRs, 42 RBIs); DH Alex Webb (.308, 9 HRs, 56 RBIs). RHP Garrett Farmer (5-1, 2.24 ERA, 104 Ks); LHP Jackson Tavel (3-1, 1.98 ERA, 27 appearances).
The Skinny: Jacksonville State defeated Morehead State, 10-3, to win the Ohio Valley tournament title, its fifth league championship, over the weekend. … Garrett Farmer was the OVC pitcher of the year.