In arguably the biggest regular season series in Dallas Baptist baseball history, the #16 (NCBWA) Patriots travel to #18 Clemson for an early season barometer-reading for both teams.
Last weekend DBU (3-0) was not tested in overwhelming Monmouth while Clemson (4-0) found a way for three one-run home wins vs William & Mary before pounding Furman 12-4 Tuesday.
Under 11th-year head coach Dan Heefner, the Patriots are known as an offensive power, exemplified last year in crushing 97 homers (3rd nationally), 143 doubles (4th) and posting 7.4 runs per game (18th). The Pats return a bevy of offensive weapons from that team, none more explosive than junior CF Jameson Hannah.
Hannah is a dynamic athlete with power to all fields. In the Monmouth series he smoked a low laser for a homer to right, laced a blast off the top of the centerfield wall and, for good measure, stroked a double to left field. Last year he slashed .328/.411/.530 before starring in The Cape for Bourne where he ended the summer on a 20-game hitting streak. Defensively he flashes a plus glove with plenty of range. No doubt many scouts will be at Doug Kingsmore to see Jameson Hannah.
Jameson Hannah (Courtesy of Dallas Baptist athletics)
While Hannah is the headliner, he's far from the only Patriot weapon. The DBU lineup is deep, experienced and versatile. Third-baseman Tim Millard is a physical & advanced hitter who belted 30 extra-base hits last year, including 12 homers. He's honed his plate discipline over his career (43BB/46K in '17) and is an adapt fielder despite his 6-1, 215lb frame.
Catcher/DH Matt Duce returned to campus for his senior year despite being a 14th round draft pick of the Mets. In addition to offering experienced leadership often critical for late season runs, Duce is a potent offensive menace, spraying hard-hit balls to all fields n smacking 18 doubles & 9 homers a year ago. 2B/LF Devlin Granberg led the Missouri Valley League in hitting a year ago, finishing the regular season at .359 along with 7 homers. Heefner calls him "one of the best pure hitters we've had". Yet another threat is returning RF Evan Sandmann, who walked more than he struck out last year while hitting .304.
The question for the Patriots entering this season is pitching. While no starter posted an ERA below 4.43 in 2017, there are quality arms with a year's experience returning to the fold.
Friday's starter is the wiry, 6-6 right-hander MD Johnson, who finished '17 at 6-2 with that 4.43 ERA. However, Johnson's proven to be a tough customer in
challenging environments such as one he'll encounter at Doug Kingsmore, beating Texas Tech as a freshman in the 2016 Lubbock Regional.
Saturday the Patriots will send LHP Jordan Martinson to the hill, and he had his moments a year ago in finishing 9-4 with 76 strike outs in 81 innings of work.
Perhaps most intriguing is Sunday starter r-Fr Luke Eldred, a 6-4, 254lb man-child who blanked Monmouth over five impressive innings, allowing just one single and whiffing 5 without walking a batter. He already sports an intimidating demeanor and features a high 3/4 slot with plenty of gas. Eldred has quite a pedigree, as his father Cal was a 1st-round draft selection before enjoying a 14-year big league career. His older brother C.J. is currently pitching in Kansas City Royals organization.
If there was another concern for DBU entering '18 is was who would replace the defense of four-year starting shortstop Camden Duzenack. That question appeared to be answered early as true freshman Jimmy Glowenke made several sparkling plays with the glove in his debut weekend.
Finally, two things jump out to me when watching DBU. First, Heefner, widely regarded as a top hitting instructor, has trained his hitters to drive the ball to all fields, making them particularly difficult to defend. Second, DBU's roster has serious physicality and doesn't look like your typical mid-major. These are some professional bodies here developed under the direction of Strength & Conditioning coach Adam Ross, who previously served as assistant Strength & Speed coach at Florida State.
Entering 2018 there was little doubt the Clemson Tigers would hit and score runs in bunches, led by Golden Spikes candidate Seth Beer and C/1B Chris Williams. Beer has started this season in typical fashion, hitting .455 with two doubles, an opposite homer & 5 walks among 15 at-bats. Williams' already impressive power may have jumped a tick as he's feasted on low fastballs in driving the ball all over the yard in these first four games.
Sophomore shortstop Logan Davidson is another key bat after a stellar freshman year when he hit .286 with 12 homers. Davidson appears to have grown into his lanky 6-3 frame, adding strength and smoothing his defensive actions from a year ago when he committed 22 errors.
Two key complimentary pieces of the Tiger lineup are fellow seniors in 3B Patrick Cromwell and LF Robert Jolly. Cromwell has knocked the ball to all fields in reaching 9 times in his first 15 plate appearances after hitting just .203 a year ago, while Jolly offers a little more gap power. He hit .280 a year ago with 9 doubles in just 107 at-bats.
One key question for the Tigers entering 2018 is who would replace do-everything CF Chase Pinder, a 7th round pick by the Cardinals. Not only was Pinder a key table-setter offensively, he was a plus defender, flawlessly handling 136 chances a year ago.
One of the top recruits among Lee's impressive incoming class is CF Kier Meredith, who was expected to step right and fill Pinder's role. Unfortunately, Meredith is still nursing a non-throwing shoulder injury and is on the shelf. However, fellow freshman Bryce Teodosio has opened eyes early, making two terrific catches vs Furman, including one to save a would-be 3-run homer. He's also held his own at the plate, belting three hits in his first eleven at-bats.
As just about everyone knows, the key for Clemson is how well they'll pitch after losing every weekend start from last year's highly effective staff.
Last Friday former reliever LHP Jacob Hennessy got the start, and he was touched up a bit over 4.2 innings, surrendering 3 earned runs on 6 hits, but he also struck out 6 W&M hitters while not issuing a walk.
Saturday's starter was another converted reliever in right-hander Brooks Crawford. He faired similarly to Hennessy, yielding 5 hits over four innings but did not allow a free pass. He was spelled by highly regarded freshman right-hander Spencer Strider, who flashed serious stuff in whiffing seven hitters while allowing just one walk. Expect to see much more of Strider in the coming weeks.
Sunday the call went to injury-plagued but talented left-hander Jake Higginbotham, who made his first start since 2016 and was impressive in yielding just 2 hits over 5.1 strong innings of work to garner the win.
Once Clemson gets into late-game, high leverage situations they can turn to one of the best closers in America in RHP Ryley Gilliam, a Team USA member last summer. Gilliam possesses a lightening quick arm and burst into national consciousness last season as he whiffed 50 hitters and walked just 14 in 35 innings of relief.
These are deep, talented and balanced teams which seem destined for post-season runs. They also appear to have similar strengths & weaknesses, making for a fascinating early season non-conference series. While both offenses will undoubtedly click, like most games, we think the team which minimizes walks while making all the routine defensives plays will likely prevail.
Which team fits that profile is anyones guess. Tune in to find out.
Here are your projected weekend starters:
Friday - MD Johnson (1-0) vs. Clemson TBD- 4pm EST, Available on WATCH ESPN app
Saturday - Jordan Martinson (0-0) vs. Clemson TBD - 1pm, no video streaming available
Sunday - Luke Eldred (1-0) vs. Clemson TBD- 1pm, Available on WATCH ESPN app