Going into year 1 of Erik Bakich, the general thought amongst fans was hope to make the NCAA tournament, and anything else was gravy. But after a hot streak to end the season, an ACC Championship, and being named the number four seed, this weekend hurts.
Clemson started off the weekend a little shaky early against Lipscomb, but calmed down and finished with a 12-5 win to set up the matchup with Tennessee. And was that an emotional roller coaster.
Caden Grice pitched an absolute gem, going 8 and 2⁄3 innings before getting pulled for closer Ryan Ammons, the man who put the finishing touches on Clemson’s ACC Championship win over Miami. With a 4-2 lead, it seemed perfect. Get a big win against Tennessee by only using two pitchers. Everything was also setting up magically in the college baseball universe for a Tiger run to Omaha. Auburn had been eliminated from their regional, easing a potential Clemson road to Omaha. With Clemson one strike away from jumping the biggest hurdle, Ammons gave up a three run blast to Zane Denton to give Tennessee a 5-4 lead.
Clemson rallied in the bottom of the 9th as Blake Wright doubled, and Cam Canarella, down to Clemson’s last strike, brought him home.
Clemson looked to have it in the 10th, by loading the bases with 0 outs. But Wright struck out, and Benjamin Blackwell barely grounded into a double play to end the inning. Clemson played with fire a lot in extra innings and finally got burned in the 14th after giving up the go ahead run on a ball hit to center field. It’s worth noting at the time Nathan Hall was in center because an inning earlier Cam Canarella had been controversially ejected after trash talking. Just as Atlanta Braves fans groan at the words “infield fly,” Tiger fans will forever grit their teeth when this ejection is mentioned. Nathan Hall did nothing wrong on the go ahead run, but I will always wonder if Canarella’s speed and stronger arm could’ve kept that run in. The next inning Clemson threatened and Will Taylor stole his way to third, but Jack Crighton flew out to end the game. Clemson finished the game using 10 pitchers.
Sunday’s elimination game never felt right. Compared to the packed house Saturday night, Doug Kingsmore looked half full. The Tigers also looked like a team that played 14 innings the night before. The lineup was also unusual. Part of Canarella’s ejection on Saturday meant he had to sit the game against Charlotte, and Erik Bakich got creative. Caden Grice, who in 2022 played 22 games at centerfield, made his first start at that position this season, putting Amick at first. The other oddity? Ty Olenchuk was the DH and the starting pitcher. I think we need to establish that I love pitchers that can hit. We need more of them at all levels of the game and if this had been a regular season midweek game against Charlotte, I would’ve been fired up to see Olenchuk get his first at bats. But in an elimination game? I wasn’t as big a fan, considering you have guys on the bench that have taken live at bats in games. All in all, Olenchuk did better than expected, with one RBI, a reached on error, and a hit. This would probably not have been a big deal if the rest of the lineup save for Grice hadn’t been anemic. Clemson could only muster 2 runs, one on Olenchuk’s ROE and another on a Caden Grice homer. This was fine going into the 7th inning as Clemson held a 2-1 lead and a combined staff no hitter. But then Will Butcher got the 49ers’ first hit of the day on a game tying home run. Jack Dragum added to that with a 2 out RBI single to give Charlotte the 3-2 lead, and that was all they needed. The Tigers’ season and the hopes of a rematch with Tennessee died in the ninth inning as Jack Crighton flew out to deep left field for the game’s final out.
For Clemson fans, you have to look at all the good that was accomplished this season. Year 1 of Bakich saw great accomplishment and to be in this position is amazing. But for a program that once had the expectations of Omaha and has suffered through a decade plus drought of not advancing past the first weekend, this one hurts. The best is yet to come, that’s for sure, but it’s still tough to see what was the hottest team in college baseball stumble in such a way.
Next month is the MLB Draft, meaning we’ll start to get an idea of who’s coming back next year and who’s gone. There’s a lot to build off on this team, even if the Tigers lose some stars to the Big Leagues. The future remains bright, even if today was dreary.