Strong start a necessity for Clemson baseball with first nine at home

Clemson Matthew Crownover throws a pitch in an NCAA college baseball game against Boston College on Thursday, May 15, 2014 in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

CLEMSON – Ace on the mound, a nice long homestand to open the proceedings, and yet another Opening Day filled with hope.

Final score in 10 innings: Eastern Michigan 6, No. 13 Clemson 5. Despite the six-game winning streak that followed, that puzzling 0-1 start set the tone for a wayward 2014 season.

Let’s try this again – that could be the mantra for the Tigers when they leave their spiffy, spacious new dugout Friday afternoon to begin a 9-game homestand at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, which features brand-new premium seats and widened dugouts entering the spring. A player development center remains under construction, and will not be finished until approximately the end of this season.

“We have the best fans in the country, I think, and to play the first nine here is awesome,” catcher Chris Okey said.

The stretch begins with three against West Virginia – not the best of programs, but a Power 5 opponent nonetheless – and concludes with Game 1 of the South Carolina series on Feb. 27.

“I think we’ve got a different approach this year,” outfielder Steven Duggar said. “We’re just going to try to win every pitch, win every inning. Ultimately, that might transform into winning every game.”

The Mountaineers haven’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 1996 – Clemson’s been to four College World Series in that span – but West Virginia (28-26) is making strides under third-year head coach Randy Mazey, falling just short of qualifying for the tournament last year.

Not to mention, West Virginia went a sterling 6-1 vs. six different ACC squads last year, with wins over North Carolina, Duke and Maryland.

In his final preseason comments leading into the 2015 season, Clemson head coach Jack Leggett was asked simply what he hopes to see from his team in the opening three games.

“Three wins,” Leggett answered. “The obvious is, we want to play well, see the accumulation of all the hard work and conditioning and fundamentals we’ve been through show up this weekend.”

Junior left-hander Matthew Crownover, Clemson’s wins leader last year with eight, gets the ball Opening Night, and figures to start three of these nine home games culminating with the Gamecocks opener.

“No matter what you do in intrasquad scrimmages, a real game’s a real game. It’s a different animal,” Crownover said. “The blood will be flowing the first inning, but by the second or third pitch, I’ll be ready to go.”

Fellow juniors Zack Erwin and Brody Koerner will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Erwin was a utility pitcher in the rotation and out of the pen last year, while Koerner had an impressive fall and will have the first crack at locking down Sunday assignments.

Tyler Krieger, the team’s starting shortstop when healthy, will serve as designated hitter while he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Krieger ranked fifth in the ACC last year with a team-high .338 batting average.

Eli White will take over shortstop in the interim, and freshman Chase Pinder figures to start at second base.

Left field and closer will be positions Leggett looks to solidify in February with a multitude of options. Righty Drew Moyer and lefty Alex Bostic will be the top candidates to begin with in the ninth inning, as Patrick Andrews continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery and Clay Bates recovers from an arm strain.

Freshmen Drew Wharton and Reed Rohlman and veteran Mike Triller are in the mix at left field, which Leggett calls an “up for grabs” role entering game action.

“You want to get started off on the right foot. You want to figure out your combinations in the infield, outfield, behind the plate and on the mound,” Leggett said. “You want to develop confidence, and not have your team press by getting behind by the 15th game. If we can do that, then everybody feels good about themselves.”