CLEMSON — – Pratt Maynard will begin his NCAA Tournament two hours south of here in Columbia, but N.C. State’s junior catcher has already put his mark on Clemson’s pitching staff.
Last week, Maynard lined a ball off Tiger sophomore Jonathan Meyer’s right kneecap at the ACC Tournament, sending him to the ground with a bruised knee (Maynard did shake Meyer’s hand after he rose to his feet).
Six days later, Meyer’s knee still hasn’t recovered the way Clemson coaches would like, forcing them to shuffled their pitching rotation for the Clemson Regional.
When the top-seeded Tigers (41-18) begin NCAA play at 7 p.m. Friday against No.4 seed Sacred Heart (34-21), they’ll do so with sophomore Scott Firth on the mound. Firth has a 4-1 record and 3.27 ERA, but has not started a game since April 23 against Wake Forest.
With No.2 seed UConn and No.3 seed Coastal Carolina throwing aces Matt Barnes and Anthony Meo (both projected early-round picks in next week’s MLB amateur draft) against each other in Friday's 3 p.m. opener, Leggett opted to save No.1 starter Dominic Leone and No.2 starter Justin Sarratt for later in the tournament.
“We’re not looking past anyone,” Leggett said. “We won’t have Meyer until maybe the tail end of the tournament. We’ll advance and go with the guys we’ve got. Scotty had experience and was the logical choice.”
Leggett said that Meyer’s leg is “not ready to go” and “not 100 percent,” leaving Firth. Firth spent a month in the weekend rotation, with wins over Duke, N.C. State and Maryland (throwing six innings of two-hit, shutout ball at the Terrapins), but lost his spot after two straight poor starts, allowing three runs (two earned) in 2 1/3 innings at Boston College and then allowing three runs with a strikeout and four walks in two innings against Wake Forest.
This season, he has 33 strikeouts against 26 walks in 44 innings.
He’ll kick things off in what is considered one of the tournament’s toughest regionals; both UConn and Coastal Carolina are ranked in the top 21 nationally, according to Collegiate Baseball.
Clemson beat Coastal Carolina 5-4 in 10 innings earlier this season, and the Huskies hosted a regional last year; Barnes and outfielder George Springer (.361, 12 HR, 74 RBI) are both projected as top-15 MLB draft picks.
“UConn is a solid team and so is Coastal,” said Clemson third baseman John Hinson. “The thing about postseason, it’s all about getting hot. It’s not about any other series in the year, or how well you played vs. a ranked team. Last year is a great display of that. We didn’t have a great season but still made it to Omaha and made some noise.”
Clemson began the season 14-12, but earned a regional host spot with a white-hot finish, winning 27 of its last 33 games. The Tigers are sixth nationally in hitting and 17th in runs scored with a .319 average and 7.1 runs per game.
The only thing hotter will be the weather itself. Friday's high is expected to be 93 degrees, with Saturday 96 and Sunday 99.
Leggett says the heat “will be the same for everyone” but admits his team is “more used to it.”
Hinson hopes the Tigers’ fans will provide a major edge, too.
“I think our fans are as ruthless sometimes as any team in the nation. Any team that comes in here, it’s tough to come out.”
Sacred Heart has experience in big-time environments; the Pioneers played at LSU and Mississippi State earlier this season, losing three of four games. They also own a win over UConn and lost three of four at UNLV.
“We know we can play with these guys, know we can play with anyone in the nation,” said senior center fielder Steve Tedesco. “It’s about playing mistake-free baseball.”
The Pioneers are built around speed and small-ball; first baseman Rob Griffith is their most powerful hitter, and he has just four home runs and 44 RBI to go with his .333 average. Left fielder J.J. Edwards is the leading hitter with a .380 average. They rank 18th in the nation in batting, hitting .311 as a team.
“It’s small-ball, trying to do things the right way,” Tedesco said. “We’re going to put the ball in play, we’re not a team that strikes out a bunch. We’re going to play solid defense, pitch and throw strikes – we’re going to be right there in the ballgame.”
Sacred Heart coach Nick Giaquinto said his team embraces its identity.
“We’re definitely the underdogs in this tournament. We realize that,” Giaquinto said. “Our goal is the same – to win this tournament.”