Clemson baseball head coach Montee Lee made his message very clear following the Tigers’ 10-run loss to the USC Upstate Spartans Tuesday night. “The bottom line is I’m not doing a very good job of coaching right. That’s the bottom line,” Lee stated following Tuesday night’s 12-2 loss to USC Upstate.
“[I’m] disappointed, first and foremost, in myself. [I] haven’t done a good enough job of preparing my club and helping my club get better,” Lee expressed bluntly.
The Tigers dropped their third game in a row, bringing their record to .500 for the first time all season. With no games between now and Friday night’s contest in Chapel Hill, the Tigers are at a serious risk to drop below 0.500 for the first time all season.
Clemson and North Carolina last met on the diamond during the 2019 season at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. Shockingly, the Tigers swept the eventual ACC tournament champions.
Luckily, the Tigers face a Tar Heels team far removed from their 2019 form. Heading into the weekend, the Tar Heels sit at 7-4, 3-3 in ACC play and have dropped four of their last five games. Under first-year head coach Scott Forbes, the Tar Heels took two out of three games against the then-16th-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. The Heels grabbed game three of their series against Virginia Tech after having already lost the series.
The Heels attempted to battle back against Liberty after giving up four runs in the fourth inning, but fell just short, dropping the contest 7-8.
The Tigers’ weekend trip to Chapel Hill is the team’s first of the year. The Tigers have only played two games away from their home ballpark thus far, both against South Carolina, a neutral site game in Greenville and the Tigers’ sole road test of the season at Founders Park in Columbia. The Tigers lost both games on walk-off doubles by South Carolina outfielder Andrew Eyster.
“When you get on the buses and go on the road, sometimes it’s really good for your team culture and bringing guys together to do everything together. And we certainly need to do that,” Lee told the media ahead of the team’s road trip to Chapel Hill. “It could be a good thing for us to go on the road and just go play baseball.”
Contrary to years past, the Tigers’ main problems this season are on offense. Through 10 games, the Tigers have left 77 runners on base. The pitching staff is picking up the slack, stranding 79 runners on base, allowing the Tigers, given the offensive woes, to stay in more ball games than they should be.
Clemson, through 10 games in 2021, has played four games decided by one run. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Tigers played in six such games out of 17 total games. While the 2020 Tigers captured all six close games, this year’s team has been less successful in these situations, dropping three one-run games. No doubt these struggles are exacerbated by the Tigers’ lackluster hitting with runners in scoring position.
“We spent our whole batting practice [Tuesday] on situational hitting, runners in scoring position. I think our guys understand what they’re trying to do up there. I think it’s a pressure situation,” Lee said of his team’s offensive struggles. “I’m probably putting too much pressure on our players right now.”
It is unsurprising that with so many underclassmen in the starting lineups, the Tigers feel the pressure. Redshirt junior outfielder Bryce Teodosio, is the only player listed as a junior or higher that has seen any meaningful playing time this season. Teodosio has the fourth-highest batting average on the team, but is still hitting last in the batting order when he plays. True freshman Alex Urban pinch hit for Teodosio in the fourth inning against USC Upstate.
Fellow redshirt junior Sam Hall, who started on opening day in 2020 before declining in production, has yet to see the field in 2021.
The Tar Heels’ pitching staff will not make life any easier for the Tigers this weekend. The Heels’ Friday and Saturday starters, Austin Love and Max Carlson, sit at third and tied for fourth in innings pitched in the conference. Love boasts a 2.60 ERA with two wins in three starts while both have struck out 17 batters entering the weekend. Opponents hit just 0.155 against Love, third-best in the ACC, entering the third weekend of conference play. The entire North Carolina pitching staff has 115 strikeouts through 11 games, which will be a problem for the strikeout-prone Tigers, who have gone down without putting the ball in play 102 times.
Luckily for the Tigers, the Tar Heels have their own struggles at the plate. Tar Heel batters have struck out 118 times. Tigers pitchers have 92 strikeouts on the season, including a 15 strikeout combined performance from Davis Sharpe and Mat Clarke against Cincinnati on opening day and four pitchers combined for 20 against in-state rival South Carolina in Greenville.
Two Tar Heels who have started at least seven games each, Danny Serretti and Mac Horvath, have batting averages below 0.100. Just two such Tar Heels are batting above 0.300. Serretti is having no trouble finding his way on base, however, boasting a 0.260 on-base percentage despite his 0.095 batting average.
Forbes’ squad enters the weekend with a team 0.249 batting average, but a 0.363 on-base percentage. A team that reliant on free passes will not have fun against the Tigers, who have allowed just 32 free passes all season. The Tigers’ two regular weekend starters, Sharpe and freshman Ty Olenchuk, account for ten over a combined 27 ⅔ innings.
One of the main problems this season has been finding a solid third pitcher for the weekend rotation. Through three weekends, two pitchers have joined Sharpe and Olenchuk as weekend starters, with an additional pitcher scheduled to do so before weather shortened the series. Freshman Caden Grice looked decent in his start against Cincinnati, but only threw two innings. USC Upstate rocked Grice on Tuesday, meaning he will likely be unavailable to pitch, especially with how valuable he is in the field and the batting lineup. Carter Raffield fared a bit better in his start against Notre Dame and Mat Clarke was slated to start against South Carolina before the series was shortened to two games.
Tiger fans look to Clarke and redshirt freshman Geoffrey Gilbert to fill that third spot. However, the pair are the Tigers’ best relievers, likely making Lee hesitant to not have the two available deep in a game. That leaves the Tigers searching for a solid third starter four weeks into the season.
The Tigers open their first road series of the season Friday, March 12, in Chapel Hill, N.C. at 6 p.m. The Tigers and Tar Heels are both looking to bounce back after series and midweek losses and might be just what one another needs to jump-start their season.