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Off The Bat: Clemson Bounces Back, Bryant Builds Momentum

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Clemson shortstop Logan Davidson (Photo by Tony Farlow)

Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated top 25, click here. 

Clemson Roars Back With Sweep Of North Carolina

It didn’t take long for Clemson to bounce back from its series loss last weekend to archrival South Carolina. But, then, the Tigers didn’t have long to feel sorry for themselves.

After last weekend dropping the Reedy River Rivalry for the first time in five years, Clemson had to quickly get ready for the start of Atlantic Coast Conference play and a visit from North Carolina. The Tar Heels came into the series ranked No. 3 in the country and were the conference favorites. If the Tigers didn’t get back on track, the losses could quickly start piling up.

Instead, Clemson flipped the script with a sweep of North Carolina. After rain delayed the start of the series until Saturday, the Tigers swept a doubleheader, edging the Tar Heels, 3-2, and then rolling to a 17-3 victory to clinch the series win. On Sunday, Clemson trailed North Carolina late in the game and was down to its final strike before Preseason All-American shortstop Logan Davidson crushed a two-run, walk-off home run to finish the series with a 5-4 victory. With the sweep, Clemson moved up to No. 18 in the Top 25.

Coach Monte Lee said the key to the Tigers’ improved play was their starting pitching, which had faltered the week before at South Carolina. This week, including a midweek victory at Furman, Clemson got much better performances and more length from their starters.

“I have to give our starting pitching credit,” he said. “All three guys threw the ball very well; our starters were outstanding. That was really the difference.”

Clemson made some adjustments to its rotation, moving freshman righthander Davis Sharpe to the front and adding sophomore lefthander Mat Clarke and adding freshman lefthander Keyshawn Askew behind him. The trio all pitched into the sixth inning, just a week after no Clemson starter made it out of the fourth against South Carolina.

Clemson started freshman righthander Jackson Lindley against Furman, meaning three of its starting pitchers were freshmen. They all handled the role well and stayed within themselves. Lee credited pitching coach Andrew See for his work in overhauling the rotation on the fly.

“We shuffled the starting rotation and those guys came out this week and filled up the strike zone,” Lee said. “Nothing fancy. No one had an incredible line or a dominant start. They just pounded zone and forced teams to swing the bat.”

With the starting pitching improved, the rest of Clemson’s team fell in line as well. The bullpen held North Carolina to four runs in 9.2 innings and the lineup did just enough in two games, bookending a 17-run explosion.

Clemson twice had to come back against North Carolina’s powerful bullpen. In the first game, the Tar Heels took a 2-1 lead into the ninth with sophomore righthander Joey Lancellotti on the mound. After Kier Meredith drove in a run with a single and advanced on an error, the Tigers had runners on second and third with one out. Lancellotti faked a pickoff throw to third base, which was outlawed this year, and was called for a game-winning balk.

Lee has been a part of a lot of walk-off situations, but he said a balk-off was a first for him.

“I’ve been a part of a walk-off hit by pitch,” he said. “I’ve seen a walk-off intentional walk. We got beat trying to intentionally walk a guy. Had runners on second and third, threw it away and lost. I’ve been a part of a walk-off walk a couple years against Wake Forest. I’ve seen walk-offs in about every way you can get walked off.

“It was kind of enigmatic way to win a walk-off. He did it and I’m thinking, ‘You can’t do that. Are they going to call it?’ And then they did. You don’t want to win a game that way. I’m happy we won, but you want the guys on the field to determine who wins and losses the game.”

In the nightcap, Clemson roughed up North Carolina righthander Tyler Baum, who had perhaps been the best of the Tar Heels’ excellent rotation in the first three weeks of the season. The Tigers scored six runs off the junior, chasing him in the second inning, and didn’t look back, running away with the series-clincher.

The Tigers closed out the weekend with more heroics, this time provided by Davidson. The junior got off to a bit of a slow start this season but is now hitting .288/.435/.673 with five home runs and eight stolen bases. He has been outstanding all season in late-game situations. In the eighth and ninth inning, he is 5-for-5 with two doubles, two home runs and has reached base in all eight plate appearances.

Davidson is drawing plenty of attention as a potential first-round draft pick in June. But it is Sam Hall, who hits in front of Davidson as Clemson’s leadoff hitter, who is leading the team in batting and on Sunday set the table for Davidson’s heroics with a two-out double to extend the game.

The sophomore super-utility player is hitting .357/.479/.625 with three home runs and 10 stolen bases. Lee said the coaching staff started to see Hall emerge down the stretch last year as a freshman and he has now developed into a dynamic, all-around player.

“He’s a very high-contact hitter,” Lee said. “You could see that last year as a freshman, he didn’t strike out a whole lot. As he started to develop more and developed more of an approach on the offensive side, he became such a good player. He can hit, he’s got a little pop. He’s just that kind of player. He’s a very talented kid.”

Hall, like the new-look rotation, is part of Clemson’s youth movement. The Tigers have a strong core of juniors and seniors, led by Davidson and senior third baseman Grayson Byrd (.321/.415/.482, 2 HR), but increasingly they are turning to their freshmen and sophomores. In a post-Seth Beer world at Clemson, they represent the program’s future, and increasingly its present.

Now that Clemson has found a winning formula, it will this week look to stay hot as it hosts No. 19 Coastal Carolina on Tuesday before welcoming Notre Dame to town on the weekend.

“We’ve got to keep the starters healthy and pitch well out of bullpen,” Lee said. “Offensively we’ve been solid. We’ve got some power, we’re getting solid production from a number of different guys. Guys are only going to get better the more we play.”

Bryant Building Another Under-The-Radar Power

Bryant has established itself as the powerhouse of the Northeast Conference since joining in 2010. The Bulldogs have won seven straight NEC titles and won or split 63 of 67 conference series.

Bryant is again the conference favorite. But it is also aiming to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing regionals in consecutive years. The Bulldogs are off to a good start and this weekend picked up a solid series win at Elon.

Bryant on Saturday in the series’ first game beat Preseason All-American righthander Kyle Brnovich for a 6-4 victory. Righthander George Kirby, Elon’s second Preseason All-American righthander, threw a one-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, but Bryant bounced back for a 6-5 victory in a 16-inning marathon to win the series.

Bryant (6-6) now has solid series wins at Elon ((9-6), Virginia Tech (9-5) and Abilene Christian (9-7). Its lone series loss came in Week 2, when it was swept at Louisiana State. But since then, the Bulldogs are 4-2.

Coach Steve Owens said he wasn’t worried how his team would respond to getting swept in Baton Rouge.

“We’ve got tough kids,” he said. “I like this team, I’ve liked them all year. I like how they approach their business.

“We’re physical, we’ve got guys who are different. We’re going to hit a lot of extra-base hits, we’re going to walk a lot. We’ve been running great, stealing a lot of bags. I think our defense will continue to improve. We’re not lock-down perfect yet but were’ going to be solid.”

Bryant’s lineup is anchored by redshirt-sophomores Jimmy Titus (.286/.434/.405) and Ryan Ward (.283/.313/.348). Though they came to campus together, the Bulldogs have not yet enjoyed a full season with them in the lineup together. Both have had to miss a year due to injury – first Ward in 2017 and then Titus last year. They both won NEC freshman of the year honors, however, and getting them going together figures to make for a dangerous lineup.

Titus last year suffered a torn ACL two weeks into the season and is still getting back up to speed. But getting their shortstop back has been key for Bryant.

“He’s done a very solid job for us defensively, his at bats have been really good all year,” Owens said. “I feel really good about where he’s at. After the first weekend, Ward banged his ankle up and we didn’t have him full-go until (Saturday). So, he’s missed some time too. Those two guys together are going to be tough to get through and I think we can surround them.”

Bryant has also put together a strong pitching staff. Senior lefthander Steve Theetge (1-1, 1.09) has bounced back after a subpar junior year and junior lefthander Vito Morgese (0-1, 5.00) is also back. Sophomore righthander Tyler Mattison (2-1, 6.75) has taken over at the front of the rotation. While he hasn’t been at his best at the start of the season, he offers significant upside and showed improvement Saturday at Elon.

The Bulldogs also have the added bonus of junior lefthander/first baseman Chris Wright at the back of their bullpen. Wright worked as a starter as a freshman and showed promise, but struggled with his control and went 1-4, 9.45. His time on the mound as a sophomore was limited to three appearances because Bryant needed him more in the lineup due to injuries.

Wright went to the Cape Cod League for the summer and mostly worked as a first baseman in the first half of the season. But he started pitching more as the summer went on and developed into a shutdown reliever. His fastball doesn’t have exceptional velocity – it sits around 90 mph – but it has a high spin rate and he can get swings and misses on the pitch.

Wright this year is playing everyday at first base and also serving as closer. He is hitting .204/.278/.327 and on the mound is 1-0, 0.00 with 18 strikeouts and four walks in 7.2 innings. He has yet to allow a hit.

“I want to be out on the mound, I want to be in the field – helping my team any way I can,” he said. “If that’s the way I can do it, then I’m going to do it.”

Bryant’s early-season success against a challenging schedule will help it build its postseason resume. But its unlikely to put together the resume it did in 2016, when it earned a No. 2 seed in the Charlottesville Regional.

Regardless of whether Bryant has an RPI that would put it in at-large contention later in the season, its nonconference slate is helping it develop.

“It’s fun,” Wright said. “(These games are) stepping stones, building blocks. You get to compare yourself to the top in the country which is nice for us because we don’t always get to do that.”

Bryant this week will play midweek games for the first time this season as its spring break trip continues at Winthrop and Wofford before it heads to Richmond for a weekend tournament. The Bulldogs still have work to do, but the early returns have been solid.

“We’re hoping to continue to pitch better as we go forward,” Owens said. “It’s great. It’s challenging. To be able to come out on the good end of those is a tribute to our guys.”

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Vanderbilt Clinches SEC Title, Stanford Starts Strong

Vanderbilt clinched the SEC title and Stanford opened a pivotal series against Oregon State with a win.

Eight for Omaha

Florida, Florida State, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt

It’s a tough weekend for an Eight for Omaha. North Carolina and Texas combined to go 1-6 on the weekend, but I’m not ready to boot either team from the field. The Tar Heels lost a pair of walk-offs at Clemson, one on a newly outlawed balk move, and the Longhorns simply ran into a freight train at Stanford and still managed to win a game. Both of those series feel like blips, especially with the level both teams pitch at. But there’s still a change to the field. Mississippi State is in and Louisiana State is out. I don’t want to overreact to the last two weekends for LSU, but this is not the pitching staff I signed up for. I still think coach Paul Mainieri will have the Tigers playing their best baseball in May and that these growing pains are to be expected, but, at the same time, it’s hard to be encouraged going into SEC play. Mississippi State, meanwhile, looks like it has perhaps the best 1-2 punch atop its rotation in Ethan Small and JT Ginn and keeps finding ways to win games. We’ll see how it fares this weekend in Gainesville, but it’s been an impressive first month and it’s time to squeeze the Bulldogs into the field.

Weekend Standouts

Six people or programs who put together big weekends.

Bryce Ball, 1B, Dallas Baptist: Ball homered three times Friday night to lead DBU to a 13-8 victory at Oral Roberts. For the weekend, the junior went 5-for-11 with three walks and drove in eight runs. Ball this season is hitting .296/.397/.630 with five home runs.

Trenton Denholm, RHP, UC Irvine: The sophomore on Sunday held St. John’s to one hit and one walk in eight scoreless innings to help UCI to a 3-0, series-clinching victory. He combined with closer Taylor Rashi to throw the program’s first one-hitter since 2012. Denholm has allowed just one hit in his last 16 innings and has thrown 18 straight scoreless innings. On the season, he is 2-0, 0.93 with 19 strikeouts and four walks in 19.1 innings.

George Kirby, RHP, Elon: The Preseason All-American on Sunday threw a one-hit shutout in a 1-0 victory against Bryant. He struck out 11, walked none and faced just two batters above the minimum. There was no no-hit drama, as Bryant’s hit came leading off the third inning, but he did retire 21 straight between the hit and an error to begin the ninth. Kirby is off to an exceptional start to the year and improved to 3-0, 1.71 with 38 strikeouts and one walk in 26.1 innings.

Mike Martin, Florida State: Martin on Saturday won the 2,000th game of his career as Florida State defeated Virginia Tech, 5-2, in the second game of a doubleheader. Martin, who is in his 40th and final season as the Seminoles’ head coach, last year became the winningest coach in college baseball history. The milestone win clinched the series for Florida State (13-1), which is facing a big week, as it visits Florida on Tuesday and North Carolina State on the weekend.

San Diego: The Toreros went 3-0 at the Seattle Baseball Showcase at T-Mobile Park, beating Coastal Carolina, Indiana and Minnesota to improve to 12-4. USD found a way to win three close games, thanks in large part to its bullpen, which had to cover 12 innings on the weekend. Righthander Travis Kuhn on Sunday against Indiana struck out 10 batters in four perfect innings of relief to earn his second save of the year. USD has won seven of its last eight games and now returns home for a big week, as it hosts Texas Christian on Tuesday and then begins West Coast Conference play against defending champion Pepperdine.

Luke Shadid, SS, Bradley: Shadid on Saturday became the first Bradley player to hit for the cycle in the program’s 119-year history in an 8-5 victory at Nevada-Las Vegas. Shadid led off the game with a home run, singled in the second and fourth, tripled in the sixth and completed the cycle with an eighth-inning double. He finished the game 5-for-6 with a stolen base. The junior this season is hitting .358/.414/.528 with two home runs.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for

(6) Oregon State at (2) UCLA: Pac-12 play starts with a bang this season, as the conference’s two schools to most recently win national titles square off in Los Angeles. The Beavers (12-1-1) are off to an impressive start to the season but will be tested this weekend as their powerful pitching staff takes on an imposing offense. The Bruins (11-3) are averaging 5.43 runs per game and have also impressed on the mound, despite some key injuries.

(7) Mississippi State at (4) Florida: The Opening Weekend of Southeastern Conference play has some intriguing series, highlighted by Mississippi State heading to Gainesville. The Bulldogs (15-1) have won 11-straight games and have perhaps the best 1-2 rotation punch in the SEC in lefthander Ethan Small and righthander JT Ginn. The Gators (13-5) have been rolling offensively and though Preseason All-American Tyler Dyson has scuffled out of the gate, the duo of sophomore righthanders Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich are keeping the rotation strong.

(9) Texas Tech at (10) Texas: It has been a wild first four weeks of the season for the Big 12 and now conference play begins. The Red Raiders (11-3) faces a true road series and its toughest test this season as it heads into Disch-Falk Field. The Longhorns (12-6) scored one of the best series wins of the year two weeks ago, sweeping then-No. 2 Louisiana State, but are coming off a tough series loss at Stanford and are banged up behind the plate.

Two weekend series to watch

Southern Mississippi at Louisiana Tech: Two of the preseason Conference USA favorites will square off on the opening weekend of conference play. LaTech (10-5) will be wrapping up a big 10-day stretch that is rife with chances to boost its RPI. Southern Miss (8-5) bounced back with a 4-0 week after a five-game skid and will look to keep that momentum rolling during a tricky road series.

Houston at Dallas Baptist: The series between Texas Tech and Texas will get more attention, but this is another notable matchup in the Lone Star State. The Cougars (7-7) have a series win against Arizona to their credit and will be aiming for another nonconference series win against a regional-caliber team. The Patriots (12-3) carry a seven-game winning streak into a big week, as they host Texas A&M on Tuesday before turning their attention to Houston.

One midweek series to keep an eye on

(12) Mississippi at (13) Louisville, Tuesday-Wednesday: Louisville coach Dan McDonnell and his former boss Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco have become familiar opponents over the last decade. This midweek series promises to be a good measuring stick for both teams. The Rebels (12-3) will get a test before starting SEC play, while the Cardinals (11-4) have a big week ahead, with a trip to No. 22 Duke following this midweek set.

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