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Complete Performance Carries Clemson To Sweep

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Clemson came into an intriguing early-season series against Dallas Baptist looking to answer some questions. The Tigers’ offense was unquestionably one of the best in the country, but did they have enough on the mound?

The Tigers, after all, had lost their entire rotation from last year’s team that went 42-21 and hosted a regional. And while Clemson had swept its Opening Weekend series against William & Mary, DBU was sure to present sterner competition.

Clemson this weekend rose to the challenge. The Tigers emphatically swept the Patriots, outscoring them 24-4 to improve to 7-0 and score a series victory that will serve as a resume booster in May. Clemson also moved up to No. 10 in the Baseball America Top 25, its first appearance this season in the top 10.

Coach Monte Lee said he hasn’t been surprised by the way Clemson has excelled in all facets at the outset of the season.

“We’ve been getting a really balanced attack offensively,” Lee said. “Our pitching and our defense has really stood out. I felt like in our preseason, with just the turn our pitching staff made, we had a chance to be pretty good on the mound and with the defense we have, it was going to give us a chance. That’s how I feel about us after seven games. It’s only seven games, but obviously I’m pleased with where we’re at.”

Clemson’s biggest question after last season was what it was going to do on the mound without Charlie Barnes, Alex Eubanks, Tyler Jackson and Pat Krall. Lee said he was concerned after fall ball, when the Tigers’ offense hit the pitching staff hard.

But those concerns were put to rest once the team resumed practice in January. The balance of power on the team flipped and suddenly it was the pitching staff that had the upper hand. Jacob Hennessey, Brooks Crawford and Jake Higginbotham established themselves as starters and righthander Ryley Gilliam, who pitched last summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, returned to anchor the bullpen.

“I’ve got to give (pitching coach) Andrew See credit here and our pitching staff,” Lee said. “They did a complete 180. I was concerned about our offense when season started because we pitched that well in intersquads.”

The Tigers’ pitchers have carried that over to the regular season. Through seven games, they have a team ERA of 2.39 and a 76-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 innings. The rotation this weekend combined to hold DBU’s potent offense to one unearned run on 11 hits and two walks in 18.1 innings.

Meanwhile, Clemson’s offense more than held up its end of the bargain. They gave the pitching staff early leads all weekend and combined for 29 hits and 18 walks over the three games.

Seth Beer deservedly gets the most attention at Clemson and he hit a key two-run home run in the series finale. But the Patriots kept him relatively quiet, holding him to two hits and two walks on the weekend.

The depth of the Tigers’ lineup makes it difficult to hold down the whole offense, however. Logan Davidson provides firepower at the top of the lineup and Patrick Cromwell, Robert Jolly, Chris Williams and Drew Wharton give Beer plenty of protection. Wharton broke out for three home runs in the series and Williams went 4-for-4 with a home run and two doubles Friday.

After scoring 14 runs against William & Mary on Opening Weekend, Clemson scored 36 runs in four games this week. Lee said the Tigers broke out Tuesday in a 12-4 victory against Furman and carried their hot bats into the weekend.

“The first weekend we didn’t swing bats great, to be honest,” He said. “Tuesday night we opened it up against Furman and it helped us going into the weekend.”

Clemson will look to keep its hot start going as it faces a big week. It takes on Winthrop, the Big South Conference favorite, on Tuesday before its rivalry series against South Carolina. The Tigers have won the Reedy River Rivalry series the last three years.

Lee knows how important the series is in the Palmetto State but wants his team to approach every series the same way.

“We preach and preach and preach, ‘Just play baseball,’” Lee said. “We don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on who the team is we’re playing. We just look at the personnel and prepare the best we can. It’s going to be a tough series, it always is, and they’ve got a great club. We know what we’re up for and it’s a great rivalry series for the fans.”

If Clemson is able to take the same focused mindset into next weekend, as well as it’s impressive all-around play, the Tigers will be well-prepared for another showdown with the Gamecocks.

East Carolina Breaks Out

Following Saturday night’s 5-4 loss to North Carolina at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, East Carolina coach Cliff Godwin gave his team a choice: they could either get up early Sunday before the series’ rubber game in Chapel Hill or they could skip batting practice. It is not a decision Godwin typically leaves up to the team, but he wanted them to make the decision this weekend.

With the series finale scheduled to start about 15 hours after Saturday’s game ended, the Pirates chose sleep. The show-and-go approach worked Sunday, as the offense exploded for a 12-0 victory that gave ECU (6-1) a statement series win.

“I thought our guys were ready to play,” Godwin said. “(Junior shortstop) Turner Brown saved his butt by saying that the guys would be ready to play. So, hats off to him for having the guys ready to play.”

The series’ first two games were taut, low-scoring affairs and Sunday’s finale started off that way. It was scoreless until the fourth inning when ECU broke through for three runs off Rodney Hutchison, chasing him from the game. After Austin Bergner, Brett Daniels and Josh Hiatt combined to hold the Pirates to one run in seven innings of relief in the first two games of the series, UNC was unable to find an answer out of the Sunday bullpen. With the help of three errors by the Tar Heels, the Pirates scored nine runs in the final four innings of the game.

The Pirates have a strong, deep lineup, but hadn’t been able to break through early in the series and left eight runners on base in each of the first two games. They stuck to their approach at the plate, however, and were rewarded for it Sunday.

“They’ve got really good arms, those guys are some of the best pitchers in the country I just think our guys battled and competed,” Godwin said. “I thought we had tough at bats last night and we had tough at bats today and that led to some runs.”

North Carolina (3-5), which fell to No. 13 this week, is left scuffling after two weekends. The Tar Heels went 1-4 this week and lost their first three home games for the first time since 1962. They have one week to get back on track before Atlantic Coast Conference play begins March 9 at Louisville.

But while Sunday’s series finale was a one-sided affair, ECU and UNC mostly produced an outstanding series that excited fans. The series drew a total of 12,565 fans over the three games. UNC and ECU have not played a series like this before and it is uncertain whether they will again. Godwin said he wants to continue the series.

“I thought it was good for college baseball,” he said. “I don’t know if you could get anything more on Friday and Saturday. Friday and Saturday were as good of two college baseball games as you can draw up. It was really neat.”

Now, however, Godwin wants to make sure his team doesn’t lose focus. In 2016, ECU won a series at then-No. 4 Virginia in the second weekend of the season and followed that by losing at home to Elon in a midweek game.

Godwin wants his team to avoid a repeat of that performance when Old Dominion on Wednesday visits Greenville. The schedule doesn’t let up, either, as ECU will host Pepperdine, Missouri State and St. Joseph’s next weekend in the LeClair Classic.

“Our mantra’s been ‘Be where your feet are,’” he said. “I want the kids to enjoy it, they’ve earned it and it’s a big win, but it’s only one game. We want to move forward.”

St. John’s Locked In On The Mound

St. John’s strength on the mound was a big part of the reason it entered the season ranked No. 25. The Red Storm returned ace Sean Mooney, the 2017 Big East Conference pitcher of the year, senior lefthander Kevin Magee and reliable relievers Grant Hollowell and Tommy LaSorsa.

Through its first seven games, St. John’s pitching staff has more than lived up to expectations. The Red Storm swept through the Penn State Invitational at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., throwing two shutouts and outscoring opponents 33-4. St. John’s is off to a 7-0 start this season and has moved up to No. 22 in the Top 25.

Mooney has again been at the heart of St. John’s success. The sophomore on Friday threw six scoreless innings and struck out 11 batters in a 3-0 victory against Monmouth. Mooney improved to 2-0, 0.82 and has 19 strikeouts and three walks in 11 innings this season.

Coach Ed Blankmeyer said Mooney has gotten stronger in the past year and worked to improve his secondary pitches.

“The development of his third and fourth pitch is better,” Blankmeyer said. “He’s getting more confidence in them and he’s setting them up and using them as out pitches in lieu of setting them up as get-me-over types.”

Not to be outdone, Magee followed with six scoreless innings and six strikeouts of his own against Maryland-Baltimore County. He has yet to allow either a run or a walk this season and has struck out 17 batters in 12 innings.

St. John’s entire staff is off to a stellar start under the guidance of first-year pitching coach George Brown, who came to Queens after Cory Muscara left last summer to take the same job at Maryland. Through seven games, the Red Storm have a team ERA of 0.98, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 75-to-19 and have given up just six extra-base hits. St. John’s also put together last week a 28-inning scoreless streak against North Carolina, Monmouth, UMBC and Penn State.

St. John’s offense has taken a little more time to round into form as it works to replace three of its top four hitters from last season. But the Red Storm broke out for 30 runs in the last two games of the weekend with fifth-year senior infielders Luke Stampfl, a graduate transfer from Fordham, and John Valente leading the way. Stampfl is hitting .444/.531/.667 and has played error free defense at shortstop, as he takes over at the position for Jesse Berrardi. Valente, who moved from first base to third base this season, is hitting .404/.424/.563.

The early returns have been good for St. John’s, which will try to match last year’s 10-0 start next weekend when it continues its month-long road trip to start the season at UC Davis. The Red Storm last started back-to-back seasons 7-0 in 1962-63.

One thing is certain: With Mooney pitching at the front of the rotation, St. John’s will feel good about its chances on Friday night.

“You feel like you’re going to win every time,” Blankmeyer said. “You’ve got a chance to win every time. Our run support for him hasn’t been too good, but we’ll figure that out.”

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Kentucky, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Christian, Texas Tech.

I don’t normally like to make changes to the field so early in the season, but this week sees Kentucky move in and North Carolina fall out. The Tar Heels had a disappointing 1-4 week and are off to a sluggish 3-5 start to the season. They have plenty of time to figure it out and plenty of talent on the roster, but they really seem to be missing the star power that ace J.B. Bukauskas, center fielder Brian Miller and shortstop Logan Warmouth provided last year. Meanwhile, Kentucky hasn’t been tested yet, but has one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country and offensive firepower in the form of All-American outfielder Tristan Pompey and catcher/first baseman T.J. Collett, who already has five home runs. Florida State and Texas Tech got bad news this week when they learned All-American lefthanders Tyler Holton and Steven Gingery needed Tommy John surgery, but both have the depth in their pitching staffs to cover the losses.

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Eye Catchers
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.

Brandt Broussard, 2B, Louisiana State: The junior helped LSU get back on track with a series win against Texas. Against the Longhorns, Broussard went 7-for-13 drove in six runs and scored five. He is hitting .478/.500/.522 with three stolen bases in seven games this season.

Butler: Auburn, Butler, Oregon State and Stanford are all off to 8-0 starts. The Bulldogs are an interloper into a group that otherwise comprises teams that last year played in regional finals and were projected this year to return to the NCAA Tournament. Butler has swept through two weekends and while the competition hasn’t been particularly impressive – UNC Wilmington is the only team it has played with a winning record this year or last year – coach Dave Schrage has the Bulldogs rolling in his second season at the helm.

Joe DeMers, RHP, Washington: DeMers threw a perfect game Saturday in an 8-0 victory against UC Riverside and needed just 84 pitches to complete his masterpiece. The perfect game was the first in Huskies’ program history and the first nationally since Loyola Marymount All-American Cory Abbott threw one last March. DeMers’ perfect game was one of six no-hitters this weekend. North Dakota State righthander Riley Johnson, Hofstra righthander Seamus Brazill and Stetson lefthander Mitchell Senger all threw no-hitters. Jacksonville State and McNeese State each added a combined no-hitter.

San Diego: The Toreros swept through the Tony Gwynn Legacy Classic, beating Michigan, Grand Canyon Arkansas and Arizona in the event. For good measure, USD (7-2) on Tuesday beat crosstown rival San Diego State, 3-2, in 10 innings to make it a 5-0 week.

Brian Sharp, 3B/RHP, Missouri: Sharp had an outstanding week as Missouri went 3-2 against Miami and Northeastern. The junior went 8-for-15 with two home runs, five runs and 10 RBIs at the plate, including a 5-for-5 day against Northeastern, and struck out 14 batters, walked none and scattered seven hits in 9.2 scoreless innings in a pair of appearances. Sharp is the Tigers’ leading hitter this season with a .486/.500/.833 line.

Looking Ahead
Three weekend series we’re most excited for

No. 21 South Alabama at No. 5 Texas Tech: A visit from South Alabama starts an arduous three-week stretch for Texas Tech (7-0) that also includes a weekend series at Kentucky, two midweek games at Louisville and a series at Baylor to start Big 12 Conference play. But the Red Raiders can’t afford to look past the Jaguars (7-1), who have gotten off to an impressive start this season and swept Hartford this weekend.

No. 10 Clemson vs. South Carolina: The Reedy River Rivalry, one of the best rivalries in college baseball, returns this week. It will be South Carolina coach Mark Kingston’s first experience in the rivalry, which begins Friday in Columbia before moving to Flour Field in Greenville on Saturday and concluding Sunday at Clemson. The Gamecocks (6-2) and Tigers (7-0) are both coming off series wins and will carry momentum into the big weekend.

No. 12 Mississippi at Long Beach State: The Rebels (7-0) are off to an excellent start to the season having scored series sweeps of Winthrop and Tulane. Now, Ole Miss will head west to take on Long Beach (2-5). The Dirtbags haven’t been able to get much traction against their punishing schedule, but they are always tough to beat in the friendly environs of Blair Field.

Two weekend tournaments you shouldn’t miss

Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic, Houston: In its 18th year, the Shriners College Classic has again put together a strong field. Three Southeastern Conference teams – No. 8 Kentucky, Mississippi State and No. 18 Vanderbilt – will take on Houston, Louisiana-Lafayette and Sam Houston State. Four teams in the field played in super regionals last year and all six have NCAA Tournament aspirations again this spring. As usual, it promises to be an exciting weekend of baseball in Houston.

Dairy Queen Classic/Big Ten-Pac-12 Challenge, Minneapolis: A month after hosting the Super Bowl, U.S. Bank Stadium will welcome a strong field for the Big Ten-Pac-12 Challenge. Arizona, No. 11 UCLA and Washington will represent the Pac-12 Conference, while Illinois, Michigan State and Minnesota will represent the Big Ten Conference. This will be Minnesota’s second season using U.S. Bank Stadium as its early-season home and now it will get to show off the stadium with a premier tournament.

One midweek game to keep an eye on

No. 25 Auburn at No. 21 South Alabama, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET: Auburn, off to its first 8-0 start in 17 years, will hit the road for the first time this season for a game at South Alabama (7-1). The Tigers have mauled their opponents, outscoring them 74-20 so far this spring, but will on Tuesday face their toughest opposition yet. The Jaguars are coming off a perfect 4-0 week that included a big midweek victory against Southern Mississippi and will on Tuesday be looking for another one.

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