CLEMSON — Tyler Slaton had to excuse himself from a group project one recent afternoon and some of his Clemson classmates wanted to know why.
“I kind of play baseball,” the sophomore left fielder softly explained.
The low-brow looks of disbelief were contagious.
“I guess I don’t look like a typical athlete,” Slaton said. “I’m not the tallest guy. I’m not the biggest guy.”
Not that Slaton is too little for a big role in a big-time baseball program.
But he needs a boost to look eye-to-eye with Thomas Brittle, the Tigers’ 5-8 senior center fielder from Cross.
No problem. At 5-7, Slaton is tall enough to lead No. 18 Clemson in hitting at .310. At 200 pounds, he’s strong enough to personify the Tigers’ transformation this season from a suspect rebuilding project into a team capable of hosting an NCAA tournament regional.
“Today was a tough one, obviously,” Slaton said Saturday after a 7-2 loss in the first game of a home series against a Maryland team that wore bright yellow jerseys. “But all in all we’ve been playing pretty good baseball lately.”
Attacking the baseball with a hit-to-all-fields approach got Slaton in the leadoff role, a sizzling ascent for an unproven player on the brink of extended bench time earlier this season. Slaton hit .189 as a freshman and struck out more than he walked (17/12).
Clumsily, he opened this season in a 1-for-15 slump.
“Honestly, I just had to relax when I got my opportunity,” Slaton said. “I had been putting too much pressure on myself and was trying to do too much. I focused on putting the ball in play and trying to beat it out.”
Slaton is a versatile athlete with a sports bloodline. He lettered four times in football as a running back at North Forsyth High School in Cumming, Ga. His grandfather Paul played football at Florida State, his father Mike played football at Troy and his uncle Steve wrestled at Gardner-Webb.
The Slaton skill set also includes speed (6 for 8 in stolen base attempts) and defense (head coach Jack Leggett says Slaton is a “difference-maker” in left field).
He went 8 for 12 in Clemson’s three-game sweep at Boston College, had a four-hit game against Georgia and a three-hit game at No. 1 North Carolina.
Consistency, however, is a fickle ally with NCAA tournament privileges at stake.
Slaton has gone hitless in four of Clemson’s last seven games.
“He’s had a good season and we wouldn’t have recruited him if we didn’t think he could play well,” Leggett said. “We just need him to come on at the end here. He’s fighting himself a little bit.”
Expect Slaton to get some good advice from Brittle, a Berkley High School graduate.
“Thomas has been there for me this year,” Slaton said. “We’re kind of the same type of player. We don’t put too much juice on the ball, though he does more than I do. We’re little, speedy guys. When I was down, Thomas was always there for me.”
If Slaton continues to hit .300, those group project classmates will come around, too.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.