CLEMSON — The No. 14 Clemson baseball team returns to the diamond in five days when the Tigers play host to South Alabama for a three-game series starting Friday (4 p.m.).
And even though this year’s team will look to replace two All-Americans, three All-ACC players and five position players, head coach Monte Lee believes the 2019 team has the potential to be a really good squad.
“In my opinion, this has been the most focused group that we've had in my four years here. It is the most disciplined group. We have great leadership,” Lee said. “This is the first year where I feel like it is a player-driven leadership. Guys like Logan Davidson and Carson Spiers and Jacob Hennessy and Kyle Wilkie and some of the older guys have really done an unbelievable job of policing the team and setting the expectations.
“I don't feel like I am the one that necessarily has to do all of that now. That has been the cool part as a head coach is I feel like I am stepping back a little bit and watching them run the team, which is really nice to see.”
While the Tigers will have a “new look” on offense, with the departures of outfielder Seth Beer and first baseman Chris Williams — who combined for 40 of the Tigers 98 home runs in 2018 — Lee is excited about utilizing the speed of his team this year more than in the past.
“I feel like we have an offense that can do that based on the skillset of some of our guys,” Lee said. “But I do think we have some power and I think there are some guys that haven't played every day for us that could wind up hitting a decent amount of home runs. I still think we will drive the baseball, but we will have the ability to do more things and manufacture runs doing those types of things.”
Manufacturing runs may be all that the Tigers need to do this season with the pitching depth the team has.
Even with the loss Spencer Strider, who suffered a season-ending UCL tear that will require Tommy John surgery, Lee believes this year’s staff, especially the bullpen, could be his best yet.
“I feel like based on what I saw in the fall, we have some guys that are very capable of being very good for us out of the bullpen,” Lee said. “Will they be Ryan Miller or Ryley Gilliam? We have to wait and see. They don't have the stripes on their sleeves those guys had.
“It all starts at the back end with Carson Spiers. We're going to give him the ball at the end of the game. The bridge guys to get to him, we all know Matt Clark -- a lot of times we forget about Matt Clark. Matt was very good for us last year, but Matt's going to be a big piece for us out of the bullpen. Sam Wheatherly ... is going to be a major factor out of the bullpen."
The Tiger pitching staff returns two weekend starting pitchers from last season in Brooks Crawford and Jacob Hennessy. Those two starters accounted for 160 innings -- making them an experienced duo.
"That's the bottom line, guys are going to have to step up,” Lee said. “First and foremost, we've got two guys that return about 160 innings from last year, with Jacob Hennessy and Brooks Crawford. So any time you can return that type of experience you feel pretty good two of those three days on the weekend.”
Why not Clemson?
The Clemson baseball team has hosted regionals in each of Monte Lee’s first three seasons, but the Tigers have yet to reach the Super Regionals.
In fact, the Tigers have not advanced to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Tournament since the 2010 season.
While much of the fan base would be thrilled with the Tigers making a Super Regional appearance this season, one person told the Tigers to aim higher.
Former New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi spoke to the Tigers at their annual preseason banquet and encouraged them to dream big this season.
“I knew it (Clemson’s reputation) was good,” Girardi said. “I knew Clemson was good back when I played and I was in college. They had a lot of success here. So I told them, why not this year? Why not go win the national title? Go do it. You are a very talented group and you have a great coach and a great facility that is going to help you get better every day. Go win.”