Coming in to 2018 the major question for the Clemson Tigers was their pitching, namely how they would replace an entire weekend rotation that included three MLB draftees in Charlie Barnes, Pat Krall and Alex Eubanks.
We wrote about this question in our Clemson Fall Ball report here
After a competitive fall when many quality arms were vying for starting roles, head coach Monte Lee ultimately chose converted '17 relievers LHP Jacob Hennessy (Friday) and RHP Brooks Crawford (Saturday) while selecting LHP Jake Higginbotham for Sunday. The latter made seven starts in 2016 before sitting out 2017 with an injury.
After winning three one-run games against William & Mary in the opening weekend, the noted bashers from Dallas Baptist paid a visit to Doug Kingsmore to really test this trio
How did this revamped Tiger rotation fair in their first real test? Here is their combined line from the weekend during which the Tigers swept DBU (12-1, 9-1, 3-2):
18.1 innings, 11 hits, 0 earned runs, 2 walks and 20 punch-outs.
Hennessy is an ultra smooth lefty with a low-effort delivery. He painted the zone (66/99 strikes) and changed speeds well over his 6.1 inning outing. Impressively, in DBU's slugger Tim Millard's first at-bat, Hennessy induced a swing-and-miss punch-out with a diving, back-leg slider. That pitch sent a message to DBU that they had their work cut out for them in game 1.
In game 2, the first of a Saturday double-header (necessitated by forecasted inclement weather for Sunday), Crawford cruised through five innings, comforted by an 8-run Tiger outburst through the first three innings. While a hard thrower, it was a change-up that opened my eyes. After DBU All-American CF Jameson Hannah scorched a deep blast foul down the right field line, Crawford froze the lefty hitter with a tumbling change to notch the strikeout.
In game 3 and double-header nightcap, Higginbotham's responded with perhaps the best outing of the three, Over 7 innings, he yielded just five hits, walked no one while striking out 7. He did so in a tight game where a mistake would been costly. His fastball sat between 89-90, touching 93 in one instance. He also showed plus command of an effective 79-80 breaking ball.
Two other notable arms making appearances were closer Ryley Gilliam and stud freshman righty Spencer Strider. Gilliam was asked to produce a 6-out save and secure the series sweep. He struck out the side in the 8th, with a 93-95 fastball and sharp 79-80 breaking ball. In the 9th, DBU touched Gilliam for a run and had the bases loaded with two out before Gilliam whiffed Jimmy Glowenke to end the game.
The RHP Strider is a 5-11, 205 pound flame thrower with explosive stuff. He comes at you with a 3/4 slot and some rock & roll funk, lending some deception that can further frustrates hitters. Strider did have some difficulty commanding his arsenal in walking 3 over his nine-out effort to close out a 9-1 Tiger win. Strider seems on track to become a factor later in the season.
Jacob Hennessy (courtesy of TheClemsonInsider)
Offensively there were no Tiger questions coming into '18, with the core of SS Logan Davidson, RF Seth Beer and C/1B Chris Williams returning to lead the way.
Over these three games Davidson & Beer were pretty well contained, combining to go 5/22 with just 3 RBI. However, Beer, hitting in the 2-hole all weekend, immediately impacted game 3, crushing a 1st-inning 2-run homer for a lead the Tigers never surrendered. Meanwhile Davison did his part in the field, routinely making difficult plays look easy. He charged balls well, went deep in the hole to showcase a plus arm and was automatic all weekend.
Williams was the story in game 1, going 4-4 with a homer, two doubles and 4 RBI. He also showed good plate discipline throughout the series, not striking out once.
However, it was the contributions of 3B Pat Cromwell (3-hole), LF Robert Jolly (5-hole), LF Drew Wharton (6-hole) and freshman CF Bryce Teodosio (8-hole) that must have fellow ACC teams a bit worried.
Cromwell was in the thick of most rallies, reaching base 7/13 plate appearances and scoring 5 runs. Jolly pounded 5 hits, including two doubles in game 1, reached 8/13 times and scored 4 more runs. Wharton went off in game 2, belting two 3-run homers. He also blasted a solo-shot in game 1 and drove in 8 over the weekend.
Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the play of Teodosio. Lesser heralded among a stellar recruiting class and injured during the Fall, the well-built 6-3, 215 pounder hammered the ball all weekend, including aa sharp double down the LF line in game 1 and a frozen rope homer to the pull side in game 2 . In all, Teodosio reached base 6 times while also laying down a pretty sacrifice bunt. The glove? He made a sparkling diving catch on a sinking liner and has proven to be more than capable defender over this early season.
In all, Clemson wildly exceeded expectations in making a loud national statement. They belong among the 10-12 elite teams in the country.
What did we learn about Dallas Baptist?
Well, starters MD Johnson (Friday) and Jordan Martinson (Saturday) were brutalized to the tune 15 earned runs over a combined 6.2 innings. The lone bright spot for the Patriots was Sunday starter and redshirt freshman Luke Eldred.
This is what we said about Eldred in our series preview published earlier in the week:
"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."
Given the task of salvaging the series with a win in game 3, Eldred was impressive after yielding that 2-run 1st inning blast to Beer, retiring the next twelve Tigers he faced. He's a low zone-pounder with full conviction in his offerings, notching 40/53 pitches for strikes while sitting between 88-91. He also flashed a nice change and breaking ball.
Offensively, head coach Dan Heefner must be disappointed that his offense was thoroughly stymied, scoring only 4 runs while leaving 22 runners on base in the three losses.
The table-setting Hannah led off game 2 with a rocket to center for a single and, in game 3, dragged a bunt single to open the nightcap. However, nothing came of those chances. He finished 4-12 over the weekend while showing a live bat with clear power potential.
Most notable was the ineffectiveness of 3-5 hole hitters C Matt Duce, 3B Tim Millard & DH Garrett Wolforth. They were flat muted by Clemson pitching, to the tune of 3-31 with zero RBI over the weekend.
The Patriots (3-3) will try to shake off this miserable weekend and get well at home, starting Tuesday against stuggling Oklahoma, then hosting Air Force over the weekend.
Clemson (7-0) hosts Winthrop Tuesday before facing rival South Carolina in the Palmetto series next weekend.
We'll preview that series later this week and will attend all three games. Stay tuned.