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Clemson Baseball

The Turnaround We Should Have Expected

May 6, 2023


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Clemson baseball has been on an absolute tear over the past month. Since being swept by No. 2 Wake Forest, Clemson has rattled off five straight ACC series wins to go from 16-13 (2-7 ACC) and in the conference cellar-- to 30-17 (13-10 ACC) and in second place in the ACC Atlantic-- and fourth overall in the league.

The job first-year head coach Erik Bakich has done has been nothing short of phenomenal in terms of rallying the troops. The national media is raving over the Tigers right now, in equal parts shock and awe. However no one should be shocked by what’s happening in Tiger Town right now. In hindsight, the Tigers were never really that far away. 

For example: March 3-5 - The Reedy River Rivalry. 

The Tigers took on the Gamecocks and things started off well. Clemson controlled South Carolina throughout Game One on their way to a 5-2 win at home. The two teams would then square off in Greenville and Clemson carried a 7-3 lead going into the bottom of the seventh inning. The Gamecocks would put up five runs in the bottom half, and add three more for good measure in the eighth. Clemson’s rally in the ninth fell short, and the Tigers lost a close one, 11-9. The Gamecocks then took game three in Columbia with ease and are now a top-five ranked team in the country.

Clemson Sports Talk
Caden Grice has been a weapon for Clemson at the plate and on the mound in 2023.

This trend continued in the following weeks. The Tigers had late leads on Duke (6-4 in the eighth, lost 11-8), Georgia Tech (3-1 in the eighth, lost 4-3 in 11 innings), and Wake Forest (3-2 in the eighth, lost 4-3) and led the Deacons 1-0 in the fourth inning in game three before the wheels came off and ultimately lost 6-5 after a late rally fell short.

In the Duke and Georgia Tech series, Clemson won a game a piece, but couldn’t find their way over the hump. In a way, this was predictable. Pitching was the obvious weak spot for the Tigers coming into the season, and the arms were flailing late in games. 

But something happened after that Wake Forest series. The Tigers had a midweek game against what is now a top-ten Coastal Carolina team, ranked #17 at the time. Bakich said before the game he hoped this would be a turning point. Clemson run-ruled the Chanticleers in that one, 16-6, in just seven innings of work. 

After that, things started to click. Clemson dropped the series opener at Florida State before crushing the Noles in games two and three (8-1, 6-2 respectively). They went on the road to Athens and dominated Georgia in a midweek contest 8-1, before coming home and taking 2 of 3 from Notre Dame. They dropped their midweek rematch against Georgia in a tight one, but then immediately bounce back by sweeping away a challenge from NC State, trouncing Kennesaw State at home in another midweek contest, and then taking two of three from a Top-25 Boston College team on the road.

Today, the Tigers have a chance to sweep No. 22 Louisville after winning the first two games of the series at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.

Erik Bakich has done this before.

At MIchigan, Bakich took over a Wolverines squad coming off back-to-back losing seasons. In his first year, they found a winning record. By year three, they made the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven seasons. By year seven, they were the College World Series runner-ups.

In his time at Michigan, Bakich never had a losing season and made five NCAA tournament appearances-- plus he won two Big Ten titles. The former Clemson assistant under Jack Leggett, who is now on his staff as an advisor and mentor, knows how to turn teams around and with great success.  

The start to the season was rough, without question. Fans and media alike (myself included) were confounded by the easily fixable mistakes, the blown leads, and the embarrassing losses-- like being swept at home by a UCF team that quite frankly is not very good. Let’s put things in perspective, though. Clemson sits at No.12 in the RPI with the third-best strength of schedule in the country. Except for that UCF series, Clemson lost to good teams and didn’t do themselves many favors in several of those matchups.

Like I said though, the mistakes were fixable, and fix Bakich has.

The Tigers cleaned things up. They’ve gotten quality starts from their arms, putting less pressure on the bullpen. The stars have started to shine through, with guys like Caden Grice, who struggled at the plate to start the year, heating up. The defense is getting gold glove, Sportscenter top-ten plays every week from guys like Ben Blackwell, who should be a lock for first-team All-ACC at shortstop after his performance this season. Most importantly, the Tigers are letting other teams beat themselves while playing fundamental baseball. In the second game against Louisville, Clemson stayed disciplined at the plate and took the lead for good in the seventh inning by drawing four walks, two with the bases loaded, and ultimately scored three in the inning on just one hit. It’s been a huge improvement over the hack-and-slash, all-or-nothing, and often undisciplined approach at the plate and on the bases we watched in Clemson over the past few seasons. 

We all should have seen this coming. The evidence was in front of us all from the start, but I think we often get too caught up in the moment and don’t see the bigger picture. I’m as guilty of it as anyone and hindsight is 20-20. Luckily the Tigers are better than that. 

The Tigers and Louisville wrap their series today at noon. You can watch the game on ESPN+.

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