The Clemson baseball team has “Omaha” inscribed on the back of its hats, representing where the Tigers hope to end each season. At this point, perhaps a more realistic goal would be “Supers.”
Clemson failed to win a regional for the ninth consecutive year this season as the Tigers were eliminated Sunday afternoon by Jacksonville State in the Oxford Regional.
Clemson has not reached the College World Series since 2010 and has not advanced to the Super Regional round of the tournament since that same season. Clemson advanced to a Super Regional eight times from 2000 through 2010 and reached Omaha and the College World Series four times during that stretch, before failing to win a regional each of the past nine years.
“It’s been a struggle,” Clemson coach Monte Lee said of his team’s play in the postseason. “If you look at it, we’ve won Game 1 four years in a row and we’ve lost Game 2. And when you lose Game 2 that puts your back against the wall. So you have to have extremely deep starting pitching to be able to make that run if you lose one of the first two games. So that’s been the issue, I think.”
Clemson moved on from legendary coach Jack Leggett after the 2015 season and hired Lee, hoping the Tigers could end their postseason struggles after failing to advance out of a regional in Leggett’s final five seasons.
Instead, those struggles have continued and the postseason losses in four seasons under Lee have come in embarrassing fashion.
In 2016, Clemson was eliminated after a 9-2 loss to Oklahoma State in what was a bit of a rebuilding year for the Tigers with a brand new coach. The following year, Clemson lost 8-0 to Vanderbilt in its final game of the season, before falling 19-6 to the Commodores in an elimination game last season.
There doesn’t appear to be much progress being made. In fact, Clemson took a step back this season with the team being on the tournament bubble the second half of the season and then having to travel for the regional round.
And Sunday’s season-ending loss came to a team that entered the weekend having never won a game in the NCAA Division I baseball tournament.
“As a head coach I’ve gotta do a better job in all areas of the program, and our assistant coaches do as well,” Lee said.
There are plenty of reasons why Clemson struggled this regional and has struggled recently in the postseason, but the most glaring one is starting pitching.
The Tigers started Jacob Hennessy, Mat Clark and Brooks Crawford in the NCAA tournament. While other powerhouse programs around the country were getting solid starts from their starters, Clemson’s three starting pitchers combined to allow 13 runs in 9 2/3 innings pitched.
“That’s certainly an area that moving into the fall is going to be a big point of emphasis for us,” Lee said. “We’ve gotta develop starters. We’ve gotta do a better job of developing starters and forcing guys to pitch through situations and pitch with runners on base and stretching guys out. That’s going to be a big focus for us because that was an issue for us this year. That’s just an area we’ve gotta get better at.”
To be fair, Clemson had its share of injuries this season, including losing a potential weekend rotation guy in Spencer Strider before the season even started. But teams deal with injuries every year, and as Lee pointed out, this wasn’t a one-year blip on the radar.
“Momentum is always going to be based on starting pitching, and we’ve got to do a better job of developing starters and having guys ready to go deep into ballgames and get through a lineup three times,” Lee said. “That’s the key, and we have not been able to do that. And that’s why we have not been able to get out of a regional round.”