CLEMSON | One Connecticut player wielded a Wiffle bat before Monday’s elimination game. Others kicked around a Hacky Sack during batting practice. The Huskies were loose.
Clemson carried the weight of an eighth-inning blown lead from a night earlier, the pressure of being a favorite knowing it must again walk the elimination-game tightrope — which they did successfully the past two seasons.
This time, Clemson stumbled defensively and on the mound in a 14-1 loss that marked its third home regional tournament loss since 1994.
The regional title was the first for Connecticut. UConn coach Jim Penders remembers as a kid watching Clemson play in the College World Series. Now his team will face South Carolina in a Super Regional and is two wins from a trip to Omaha.
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“We played with no fear, no fear of failure; we just went out and attacked,” Penders said. “We felt there was no way we were going to get beat.”
The core of this Clemson team became familiar with fighting for survival. Clemson coach Jack Leggett said the Tigers were not emotionally hung-over from UConn’s walk-off win Sunday night.”
I think our kids were in a great frame of mind,” said Leggett, whose teams are 8-3 in home regionals. “They were ready to play, no question in my mind.”
Familiar deficiencies — namely defensive lapses and a lack of pitching depth — cost Clemson its sixth Super Regional in seven years.
The No. 2 seed Huskies (45-28-1) showed kids from the Northeast can play college baseball, and they demonstrated pitching depth is king in the postseason.
Brad Miller, meanwhile, reminded that some demons are hard to vanquish.
After two dismal defensive seasons, including last spring, when Miller posted a sub-.900 fielding percentage, the Clemson junior improved his footwork and timing and boosted his fielding percentage 60 points (.957).
The good work unraveled in the fifth inning when Miller committed two errors — one a hard hit, one-hopper between his legs and the other on a mishandled slow roller — leading to three unearned runs as the Huskies batted around and built an 8-1 lead.
Clemson entered having exhausted its starting pitching options. Leggett tabbed freshman Kevin Pohle, but the righty lasted a third of an inning, allowing five hits and three runs.
“(The lack of pitching depth) showed up a little bit,” Leggett said. “We didn’t have a whole lot. Jonathan Meyer being out hurt us a little bit ...when you miss one or two guys, it puts pressure on everyone else.”
Clemson couldn’t afford to falter with the way Connecticut starter Greg Nappo pitched. On Saturday, Penders made a wise move by removing Nappo after 37 pitches in a rout of Sacred Heart, hoping he could use Nappo later in the tournament.
The decision worked perfectly as the lefty Nappo allowed one run in 52/3 innings Monday.
It was reminder again of how quickly a hot team like Clemson, winners of 27 of 33 games entering the tournament, can cool.
“It’s not really something you can describe,” said Richie Shaffer, whose homer accounted for Clemson’s run.
“For the seniors ...it’s going to hurt really bad.”