CLEMSON — – Dominic Leone has been a step behind the rest of Clemson’s pitching staff this season.
In mid-February, the sophomore righthander left his first start of the season with shoulder tightness, and it has been a slow, steady climb back to health since.
Friday night, Leone continued his ascension back to the top of the Tigers’ rotation with a dominant effort on a cloudy, cool night at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
He struck out 10 Wake Forest hitters through 8 1/3 shutout innings, keying Clemson’s 2-0 series-opening win over the Demon Deacons.
Clemson won its sixth straight and 10th in 11 tries, improving to 24-13, 10-9 in ACC play. Wake fell to 15-24, 6-13; the teams continue the series at 6:30 p.m. today.
“Every time out is another experience, another time to try and get better, get my pitch mix working,” Leone said. “Ultimately, I feel like this start will give me some confidence, boost my self-esteem, and get me out, keep me going next time.”
Leone was shut down for almost two weeks following that first start, and pitched only 2.2 innings over the next two weeks, all in relief. He returned to the rotation on March 26 at N.C. State, going deeper into games with every start. Last week, he picked up his first win of 2011, holding Boston College to two runs in six innings.
“He’s really completed in essence what was his spring training,” Clemson pitching coach Dan Pepicelli said Thursday. “He’s been four weeks behind everyone else, just coming into it. He’s been sharper and sharper and sharper.”
And sharper still Friday night.
Leone got better as the game wore on, striking out five over his final three 1/3 innings.
“I had a little adrenaline going in the eighth and ninth, wanted to finish it out,” he said. “I was really motivated and had that arm strength.”
His bid for a complete game ended with a one-out ninth-inning walk to Mac Williamson, but former No.1 starter Scott Weismann froze the final two Deacons looking to end the game. It was his second save in as many games.
“Scotty Weismann did exactly what we’d like him to do at the end of the game,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “He fits that role, likes it. Hopefully we found something there as well.”
Wake Forest is the ACC’s worst hitting team, entering Friday with a .222 team average. But if Leone can replicate his effort, Clemson might have a bonafide No.1, something it needs badly, considering Weismann’s struggles and Kevin Brady’s continued absence due to a forearm strain.
Leggett said Leone “seems to get a little better each time out,” a sentiment the sophomore shares.
“I felt like I pitched pretty well at B.C. and Maryland and wanted to build off those starts, take the good things out of them and bring them to this game,” he said. “It turned out pretty well.”
Clemson led 1-0 through seven innings despite struggles with runners in scoring position.
The Tigers grabbed a quick lead in the first. John Hinson walked to lead off the game, and scored easily when DH Phil Pohl dropped a double down the right field line.
But they couldn’t capitalize on their opportunities from there, stranding seven runners in scoring position in the first seven innings.
Their luck changed in the eighth. With two out, shortstop Brad Miller singled, and broke for second.
The ball never got there; catcher Jack Carey’s throw hit reliever Niko Spezial’s arm.
“I saw the shortstop come at the bag, expecting the throw to be kind of soon, and it just never happened and I heard everyone,” Miller said.” The second baseman was kind of laughing, and I was like, ‘What happened? He must’ve gotten hit.’”
Center fielder Will Lamb took advantage, lining an RBI double into the right field corner for insurance.
“A one-run game is a whole different deal than a two-run game,” Leggett said. “That was big.”