Clemson’s Storybook Season Comes To An End In NCAA Tournament

CLEMSON, S.C.—Clemson’s unforgettable season this weekend came to a sudden end with a home regional loss. The Tigers entered the NCAA Tournament riding a 16-game winning streak and as the No. 4 overall seed, but they bowed out of the tournament following a gut-wrenching, 6-5 loss in 14 innings to Tennessee in Saturday’s winner’s bracket game, followed by a 3-2 loss to Charlotte in an elimination game Sunday.

For first-year coach Erik Bakich, who last June was hired to lead the program where he began his coaching career 20 years prior, it was a moment of whiplash as the season ended.

“It’s an incredible run,” Bakich said. “It feels like driving 100 miles an hour and then all of a sudden we just slammed on the breaks.”

Such is the nature of the NCAA Tournament, where a season can turn in a moment. A little after 8:30 p.m. Saturday night, Clemson was one strike away from advancing to the regional final. A little more than 18 hours later, its season was over.

While the season ended in disappointment, the Tigers have a deserved upbeat attitude about the season. On April 1, Clemson lost to Wake Forest, the final game of a sweep at home. The Tigers were 16-13 and had lost their first three ACC series.

From there, however, a switch flipped on the season. Clemson beat Coastal Carolina in a midweek game and then won a series at Florida State. It beat Georgia and then won a series against Notre Dame. Before long, the Tigers were rolling. They went 28-6 following the Wake Forest sweep. That turnaround included a 16-game winning streak going into Selection Monday, which rocketed the Tigers not only into a position to host regionals, but all the way to the No. 4 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They won the ACC Tournament, sweeping through the field for their first title since 2016.

To have finished the season 44-19, won the ACC Tournament and earned the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament after such an inauspicious start to the year—and it happening in Bakich’s first season at the program’s helm—made for a compelling story. That will be the way these Tigers, in the 126th season of the program’s storied history, will be remembered.

“Page 126 in the Clemson baseball history book will be one that will be referenced for all time,” Bakich said. “Their legacy is that they achieved one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of Clemson baseball. To see the tale of two seasons, their legacy is that forever and ever, every time a Clemson baseball team hits a rough patch, has some adversity, goes through a skid, they’re going to hear about team 126.”

Clemson’s second-half surge made for one of the best stories in college baseball this year. The Tigers were a feisty team in the first half of the season but didn’t appear to be on the verge of a special turnaround.

But, little by little, as players and coaches got used to one another, the Tigers rounded into form. First baseman/lefthander Caden Grice emerged as an All-American two-way star, anchoring the lineup and filling a crucial role in the rotation. He finished the year hitting .307/.411/.618 with 18 home runs and went 8-1, 3.35 with 101 strikeouts and 33 walks in 78 innings. Freshman center fielder Cam Cannarella established himself as the team’s leadoff hitter, batting .388/.462/.560 with seven home runs and 24 stolen bases. Outfielder Will Taylor (.362/.489/.523, 11 SB) and catcher Cooper Ingle (.328/.417/.461) took steps forward. Slugger Billy Amick (.413/.464/.772, 13 HR) got an opportunity about a month into the season and ran with it, eventually earning all-ACC honors.

By the time Clemson beat Miami to win the ACC Tournament in Durham, just about everything was humming for the Tigers. That made the crashing halt to the season all the more jarring, but Clemson’s veterans walked away from the final game feeling secure about the program’s future.

“This program’s going to turn into a dynasty here soon,” said Jackson Lindley, a fifth-year righthander and team captain. “These coaches know what they’re doing and provide us with the right tools and mindset. I’m excited to see what the future of Clemson holds.”

While there were plenty of positives from the season, Bakich is not finishing his first year at the helm satisfied with Clemson’s accomplishments. This is a program that’s been to the College World Series 12 times and, less than a decade ago in 2015, fired longtime coach Jack Leggett, despite the fact the Tigers hadn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 2008. The expectations for Clemson are clear—win and win big. That’s why Bakich was hired from Michigan and made one of the highest paid coaches in the ACC.

Clemson hasn’t won a regional since 2010, which was also its last trip to Omaha. It’s the program’s longest drought since the 17 years between CWS appearances in 1959 and 1976. After the Tigers missed regionals in 2021 and 2022, leading to Monte Lee’s firing and Bakich’s hiring, no one expected Clemson to get back to Omaha right away. Still, that is the program’s remit.

“Omaha is still the standard of the program, always has been, always will be,” Bakich said. “So, we fell short. We ended up ACC champions in the process. We’re not satisfied with bowing out in a regional. I get it, it’s been too long. Once we finish our exit meetings (Monday), our staff will turn our energy to Team 127 and making sure we can get this program back to Omaha and not fall short.”

Clemson will have some key players to replace. Grice projects to be drafted in the first 3-4 rounds. Lefthander Ryan Ammons could be off to pro baseball. Shortstop Benjamin Blackwell and second baseman Riley Bertram were both fifth-year seniors, leaving a hole up the middle.

But there’s exciting talent returning. Cannarella and Taylor will return in the outfield. Freshmen Joe Allen, Ethan Darden and Tristan Smith have upside on the mound. Clemson also signed the No. 13 recruiting class in the country, a group it will try to shepherd through the draft.

Tennessee coach Tony Vitello, who engineered a rebuild of his own in Knoxville, came away from the weekend impressed with the Tigers.

“I think Clemson put together a miraculous season that is going to keep going forward under the guy they got,” Vitello said. “I’m kind of jealous of him to be honest with you. This is where he started and to get to come back is a pretty cool thing and a very wise move to have coach Leggett around, too.” 

A season’s end always hurts, particularly one that feels like it got cut short. While that’s what the Tigers went through over the weekend, they know that there’s still a lot to celebrate.

“As much as that stings, knowing we didn’t play well (Sunday), knowing that big picture this team will be coming back, be celebrated, get their rings, they’ll always be ACC champions,” Bakich said. “They will always have that. Teams that win together stay together. We talk about that. These guys will have a lot to come back and celebrate and have reunions. Even though it sucks right now there’s so many positive things these guys did to return Clemson baseball to a level that was competitive that we feel like we should be at.”

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