CLEMSON — The low point, if there was one, came in the middle of a sweltering June afternoon, with nothing less than a trip to Omaha on the line.
One more out. That’s all Clemson needed in the ninth inning of Game 3 of its NCAA Super Regional with Alabama, an inning it’d started leading 8-1.
Now it was 8-4, and the bases were full of Crimson Tide runners. Clay Jones hit a grounder right to shortstop Brad Miller for an easy final out – and right through his legs into left field.
Two runs score. Only reliever Will Lamb inducing a fly ball for the final out saved Miller from embarrassment and potential goathood, but it couldn’t hide this fact: his defense was a major liability.
10-plus months later, Miller has rectified the problem.
Entering this weekend’s key home series against No. 12 Georgia Tech (30-12, 17-4 ACC), which begins with tonight’s 6:30 p.m. game, Miller leads Clemson (27-14, 11-10) and the ACC with a .431 batting average and .535 on-base percentage.
Even more importantly, he has just six errors through 34 games, 28 of those at shortstop. His fielding percentage is .957 – both marked improvements from a year ago, when he had 32 errors and an abysmal .894 fielding percentage in 69 games.
He has become a complete player, an All-America prospect, and a top prospect for June’s MLB amateur draft. And, oh, yeah, Clemson’s leader.
“I never lost confidence in myself,” Miller said. “ I just knew there was work that needed to be done. That’s a big thing. It’s not an overnight deal, never is. Realizing that has really helped me. Even when things are going good, I’m sticking to the process and working.”
Miller’s move forward started last summer, when he toured with the USA National Select Team, hitting a team-best .441 with a.963 fielding percentage; the team won a silver medal at the World University Games.
He picked up tips from slick-fielding Florida shortstop Nolan Fontana and Vanderbilt third baseman Jason Esposito, changing his footwork and focusing on being in the correct position to throw.
“Being around guys that are so successful, you can pick up on their confidence and how they approach the game,” he said.” I can’t talk about my experiences enough. It was awesome just being a part of something bigger than yourself. Playing for your country was something I’ll never forget.”
Fielding, he said, is always a work in progress.
“I break it down, keep working on the things I know are going to help me out there every day,” Miller said. “Every day in practice, every day in pregame, it doesn’t matter. Worrying about going out there and working on the things I know is going to tighten it up and once the game starts, it’s being aggressive, and trusting in all the preparation I’ve done.”
Making the spectacular play was never a problem for Miller. The routine throws, the easy plays – like Jones’ ground ball – those rose up and bit him.
“I wasn’t making all the plays I wanted to me, and even some plays besides that,” he said. “I wanted to make more plays than I was making.”
Improved focus, he said, has played a big role.
“That has helped me,” he said. “Keeping it really simple, focusing on the next thing ahead of me, not worrying about too much.”
His marked improvement has helped Miller serve as an anchor for the Tigers’ defense.
Miller broke a finger March 11 against Virginia and was sidelined for nine games, then limited to designated hitter duties for seven more. In that 16-game period, Clemson committed an astounding 28 errors.
They’ve committed 19 in the other 25 games, with just 10 in the 15 since he’s returned to shortstop.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett says Miller’s consistency in the middle improves the entire defense; at times, second baseman Jason Stolz was forced to play short, and a concussion knocked third baseman John Hinson out of the lineup, moving natural first baseman Richie Shaffer to the hot corner.
“It’s helped everyone be a little more confident and comfortable,” Miller said of his return.
He’s obviously plenty confident at the plate. Since returning to shortstop duty, Miller is 31-of-59 – a blazing .524 clip.
“I feel comfortable up there and want to keep being aggressive,” he said. “That’s the biggest focus for me. I’m focusing on trying to hit anything, keep it simple, hit anything hard. Balls will fall. As long as I worry about my approach, I believe good things will happen.”
If this keeps up, good things will happen in the amateur draft, too, meaning Clemson fans should savor their last months with Miller.
He’s focused on nothing less than a College World Series championship, something the Tigers fell painfully short of last year in Omaha.
“I’m trying to leave it all out on the field with the guys, try and win some games,” he said. “When your focus is that, everything else will fall into place.”
Noted: Leggett said Thursday that fifth-year senior Justin Sarratt is the leading candidate to start Sunday’s series finale; Dominic Leone and Jonathan Meyer are expected to start the first two games. Sarratt has allowed three runs in his last 19 innings of mid-week work.