Tiger Tracks blog: Struggling starters hold key to flipping Clemson’s fortunes

CLEMSON – Monte Lee won’t say he’s back to the drawing board trying to pencil in a weekend rotation. But the Tigers’ skipper is definitely grasping for answers entering the second half of this college baseball season.

After a surprisingly effective start to the year, the losses of former starting pitchers Matthew Crownover, Zack Erwin and Daniel Gossett – all now in the minor leagues – are starting to catch up with Clemson (25-12, 8-10 ACC.) The Tigers have slunk to 12th in the 14-team ACC in conference-game earned run average.

“If you look at our team and where our areas that we’ve struggled in when it comes to pitching, it’s been early in the ballgame,” Lee said. “Our issues haven’t necessarily been late in the ballgame, they’ve been early in the ballgame.”

Translation: the Tigers’ starting pitching needs to step up, and fast. Georgia Tech, Florida State and N.C. State, the Tigers’ guests over the next three weekends, are each among the league leaders in batting average, and if Clemson trips into a sub-.500 homestand over this 13-game stretch at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, doubts might start to creep in about the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament resume.

So where to turn? Sophomore Charlie Barnes, freshman Alex Eubanks and senior Clate Schmidt were rock-solid the first month of the season – Eubanks and Schmidt were heroic in helping Clemson take two of three from the rival Gamecocks – but the trio is 4-7 with a 6.34 ERA in ACC starts.

“I can’t have an uncomfortable pitcher take the mound,” junior catcher Chris Okey said. “At the beginning of the year, they were comfortable, everything was rolling. They hit a little rough spot. Sometimes when you’re hit around a little bit, you lose trust in what you have.”

Barnes (3-4, 4.67 ERA overall; 2-3, 5.30 ERA in ACC games) was the lone winner on the recent six-game league roadtrip when he tossed eight innings of two-run ball at Duke April 9, when the Tigers rallied in the ninth for a 3-2 victory. However, he was charged with seven runs in four innings vs. Pittsburgh and six runs in 6 1/3 innings at Wake Forest, blocking the Tigers from perhaps sweeping those series.

Eubanks (2-3, 4.56 ERA overall; 0-2, 6.59 ERA in ACC games) has been charged with two losses, at Miami and Duke, and handed in four no-decisions since his last win, when he stifled South Carolina over 7 2/3 innings to clinch the series for Clemson on March 6. He had a 1.06 ERA through his first four appearance; he has a 6.59 ERA in his last six starts, getting out of the fifth inning just twice.

Schmidt (5-2, 5.24 overall; 2-2, 7.39 ERA in ACC games) has, in his career, hovered between dominant and powerless. The fourth-year veteran allowed more than four earned runs just twice in his first 60 career appearances (31 starts) entering April of his senior year. However, he was touched up for six runs vs. Pitt (though he logged 6 2/3 innings in the victory,) four runs at Duke and five runs at Louisville. In nine starts in 2016, Schmidt has just two quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs,) vs. James Madison and Boston College.

“So we’re going to look at all our options and decide what we think is best,” Lee said. “Trust me, we’ve talked about all the different scenarios we could possibly use.”

Barnes (for tonight) and Eubanks (for Saturday) have been announced as probable starters vs. the Yellow Jackets. Sunday has been left TBA, as Schmidt was used for an inning out of the bullpen Tuesday vs. Georgia.

Other candidates Sunday, or for future weekends, are accompanied by their own question marks. Freshman Ryley Gilliam impressed Tuesday, coming close to no-hitting the Bulldogs through five frames, and has a smooth 2.25 ERA – though the right-hander’s eight walks vs. eight strikeouts are cause for concern.

“The way Ryley threw, he has to get some consideration,” Lee said. “The question’s going to be, 72 pitches on four days’ rest, how’s he going to bounce back and recover? I’d have liked to stop him at 60.”

Sophomore southpaw Jake Higginbotham (3-0, 3.26 ERA) has fixed some early mechanical troubles during his past five midweek starts, but he has tenderness in his triceps and is very unlikely to start this weekend. Sophomore lefty Alex Schnell, another sophomore lefty, was mentioned by Lee as a potential weekend starter, but he has as many appearances getting one or two outs as appearances lasting longer than an inning – six a piece. Schnell hasn’t thrown more than 3 1/3 innings this year, or more than four innings in his career.

Gilliam and Higginbotham have each yet to appear in an ACC game, and Schnell has yet to show a long arm, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“We’re going to go all hands on deck to try to win this series this weekend,” Lee said.

Said Okey, “We’ve got a mentally strong staff; we have some of the best pitchers in the nation when they’re on. I’m excited for them to come out this weekend and pitch well.”

-AB