Stuck in a short valley, Clemson baseball seeks another peak in Columbia regional

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner

CLEMSON, S.C. – The owner of more ACC baseball tournament championships than any other school isn’t accustomed to clearing the memory banks and licking its wounds in between conference and national tournament time.

Only twice in 39 tries before this spring did Clemson go winless in the ACC bracket – in 1998 and 2003 – and both those thuds were followed by quick exits in an NCAA regional.

But this is one of those weird years for the No. 18-ranked Tigers (39-20). It’s no fun mulling over a five-game losing skid – Clemson’s longest in more than two years – which was fairly puzzling coming off nine straight wins from May 6-16.

“That’s just baseball. It’s going to happen,” Clemson ace Daniel Gossett said. “We’ve got to put the ACC Championship behind us; that’s in the past.”

The 9-gamer wasn’t even Clemson’s best streak of the year. The Tigers greeted April with an extra-innings win at NCAA tournament top seed North Carolina, sparking an 11-game tear over the next three weeks.

So which Clemson will show up this weekend in the program’s 38th NCAA regional appearance, once again down the road in Columbia?

To all-ACC tournament catcher Garrett Boulware, hopefully the squad showing no fear prospectively facing a rendezvous with rival South Carolina in enemy territory.

“Just erase the past week. Don’t even think about it. Think about the year as a whole,” Boulware said. “Hopefully we’ll look at it this way: we were saving it up for this weekend. So we’ll take it out on Carolina when we get down there.”

The No. 17 Gamecocks (39-18) find themselves in a similar situation as Clemson, hitting the reset button following a 1-4 slump which extinguished the momentum of five consecutive wins. During SEC tournament weekend, South Carolina went down in close games to fellow regional hosts Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.

As for Clemson’s latest slide, head coach Jack Leggett defended the quality of his team’s play, even if the results weren’t ideal.

Indeed, four of the five losses were to teams ranked in Baseball America’s top ten poll entering the postseason – twice at Florida State, North Carolina State and UNC.

“We actually played pretty decent baseball; we just played some really good teams that were playing well, too,” Leggett said. “We played well down at Florida State, then NC State is playing exceptionally well – we played a good game there except for an inning. Then I thought we played as tough as you can possibly play against North Carolina; we just let one slip away. We didn’t have much in the tank when we came back against Miami, who had a good pitcher.

“Based on how we’ve been playing the last 35 games, rather than the last four or five games, I like where my team is mentally, and we’ll be ready to play.”

South Carolina has ended Clemson’s season twice in the last three seasons – in Omaha in the 2010 College World Series, and 2012 in Columbia. The score in each eliminating defeat was 4-3.

Any measure of success last weekend in Durham likely would have earned Clemson its own host regional. But Boulware understands the Tigers must lie in the bed they made, starting Friday against Liberty (34-27).

“We haven’t made it easy on ourselves. So we know how to play when it comes to big games,” Boulware said. “When we get down there, if we can make it through this, I think we’ll be able to take it to North Carolina as well.”

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