DURHAM, N.C. — The wheels came off for Clemson midway through Friday’s 10-4 blowout loss to seventh-seeded Duke.
The third-ranked Tigers can only hope they haven’t lost all their traction after two games.
After ending the regular season as one of the nation’s hottest teams, the Clemson’s swagger is all but gone after the 13th-ranked Tigers’ second ACC tournament loss to a lower-seeded opponent in as many days.
“You have to look at the big picture here,” coach Jack Leggett said. “It would have been nice to get some wins here and get ourselves in the finals. But that didn’t happen. So we have to try to get ourselves refocused on playing well tomorrow and hopefully gaining momentum into the postseason.”
Having entered the weekend with an outside chance of earning one of eight national seeds for the NCAA tournament, the Tigers (39-19) may be in jeopardy of not hosting a regional next weekend.
If they are unable to upset top-seeded North Carolina in their 4 p.m. pool play finale today at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, it will be the Tigers’ first three-game, losing streak.
The timing of Clemson’s slump couldn’t be worse, especially with Virginia bolstering its hosting candidacy with a potential run to the title game.
But at a minimum, the Tigers have experienced their worst fears following the five-game layoff leading into the tournament.
While the statistics remain comparable, Clemson failed to produce clutch hits against Duke (35-23). And in much the same way Virginia’s four-run fifth inning knocked out the Tigers the night before, Clemson’s pitching and defense both unraveled in a six-run sixth Friday as the Tigers allowed the most runs in 25 games.
“Everyone realizes baseball is a funny game, and one day you can come out here and score 10 or get 10 scored against you,” sophomore right fielder Kyle Parker said. “I think we’re strong and will shake it off.”
Duke received seven strong innings from ace senior righty Andrew Wolcott, who improved to 5-0 with a 2.66 ERA against Top-25 opponents.
Yet the Tigers weren’t without opportunities. Leading 1-0 in the second inning, Clemson had runners on second and third with one out when John Nester negligently headed to third on a grounder to the pitcher, leading to an inning-ending double play.
The Tigers were down 2-1 when they wasted Ben Paulsen’s leadoff double in the fourth. An inning later, Jason Stolz was stranded after reaching second with one out.
For his part, freshman lefty Chris Dwyer went toe-to-toe with Wolcott, reaching the sixth inning for the first time in six starts. But when things took a turn for the worse for Dwyer, they spiraled downhill fast.
After Nate Freiman’s leadoff homer put Duke up 3-1, the Blue Devils followed with a bunt single. Jake Lemmerman added an RBI triple, and a Dwyer wild pitch plated Lemmerman.
In the blink of an eye, the Tigers were down 5-1.
Senior reliever Clinton McKinney replaced Dwyer but only fanned the flames, yielding three more runs before the inning was over.
“It was a different kind of game for us,” Leggett said. “We just had one rough inning like yesterday. Then we had the same amount of hits they did. They just made them count.”