Billy Bean once said that it’s hard not to get romantic about baseball, and that becomes even more true when Clemson’s 2020 season opener happens on Friday the 14th, aka Valentine’s Day. The 2020 edition of the Clemson Tigers bring some old, a good bit new, but always a special kind of excitement.
Let’s begin by resetting where we last left off. After a solid start to ACC play, including a sweep of UNC and taking two of three from Louisville, the Tigers hit a bit of a skid to finish conference play. In fact, the 2019 team entered the ACC Tournament in a situation that seems almost unthinkable for such a storied program: facing the prospect of not making the NCAA Tournament.
Clemson lost it’s ACC tourney opener in 11 innings to a scrappy BC club, meaning Clemson needed one helluva showing against Louisville to salvage the post season hopes. And boy did the Tigers deliver, picking up their third win over a red hot Louisville team in a 7-1 drubbing which saw Mat Clark take a no-hitter to the top of the 9th before Louisville got a hit. The win earned the Tigers a berth as the two seed in the Oxford, Mississippi regional. Clemson continued to ride high with an 8-4 win against Illinois before running into the host Ole Miss Rebels, who shut Clemson’s offense down and beat Clemson 6-1. Clemson was unable to recover, putting up another dismal performance the next day in a 9-2 loss to Jacksonville State of the Ohio Valley Conference, ending Clemson’s year.
It was already going to be a tall task for the Tigers this year finding someone to replace the hitting and leadership of Grayson Byrd, Logan Davidson, and Kyle Wilkie. Sam Hall looks to be a guy that could step in to Davidson’s spot at shortstop. Hall is a rangy athlete and spent much of the 2019 season as Clemson’s leadoff batter. Sophomore catcher Adam Hackenberg spelled for Wilkie a good bit last year, and should be the shoe-in as the opening day starter, particularly now with the injury of freshman James French. French will miss the first part of the season with a leg injury.
Offensively, Clemson fans will certainly be hoping to see the emergence of Kier Meredith. Meredith was a highly touted outfield prospect from Winston-Salem who has unfortunately dealt with a string of injuries over the past two seasons. If Meredith can stay healthy he could be an x factor for Clemson. Outfielder Bryce Teodosio will probably be a big part of the middle of the order for the Tigers. With 13 homers and 42 RBIs over two years, Bryce has been tabbed as a top 40 ACC prospect by D1baseball.com. Junior Bo Majkowski also returns to help shore up the outfield.
Pitching is where things may be a bit murky. Clemson took a huge blow when Jacob Hennessy announced an arm injury would end his career as a Clemson baseball player. Hennessy is remaining with the program as student assistant coach who will certain have plenty of wisdom for the rest of the pitching staff. Clemson’s weekend rotation will be Sam Weatherly on Friday, Davis Sharpe on Saturday, and then returning from injury, Spencer Strider as the Sunday starter. Strider showed a lot of promise in 2018 and was poised to crack the starting rotation in 2019 before an arm injury derailed him for the year. It appears that Strider will be kept on a pitch count to start the year, and Mat Clark should come in to finish out Sunday’s game.
Clemson’s opening opponent is the Liberty Flames. Liberty is the defending Atlantic Sun Champions. Last year the Flames began the year by shocking South Carolina on opening day in Columbia. Liberty was the third seed in the 2019 Chapel Hill regional, and opened the tournament with a 6-1 win against Tennessee, before then losing to UNC and the Vols to be eliminated. Clemson knows that the Flames can burn all too well, as Jack Leggett’s 2013 Tigers were eliminated from tournament play after two losses to Liberty in that season’s Columbia regional.
This season has a puzzling feel for Clemson. With the lack of known star power and injuries, the expectations of fans should be somewhat tempered, but this season unfortunately comes at a bad time for Monte Lee. While Lee has certainly been a great hire and has accomplished a lot in four years (3-1 against South Carolina, 2016 ACC Champs, made the NCAA tournament all four seasons), he’s facing the pressure of the legacy of the program.
While Clemson has made eleven straight NCAA tournaments, the Tigers have not gone past the first round since the 2010 season when Clemson fell short in the College World Series by losing two straight games to South Carolina to be eliminated in Omaha before the finals. For a program like Clemson, not seeing Omaha, let alone the Super Regionals in that long is a bitter pill to swollow. Clemson’s struggles in the post-season were the major issue in the Clemson parting ways with long time skipper Jack Leggett and hiring Lee. Certainly a reasonable fan can’t hold Monte responsible for what happened prior to his hiring and there is absolutely no indication of Monte being on the hot seat, but another first round exit may get the message board and social media griping stirred up again. With a school like Clemson, where baseball is arguably the second most popular sport behind football, the pressure is always there to perform. We will see how this year’s edition of the Tigers stand up under that pressure.