To get the most from a Clemson baseball team that’s as young as any in recent memory, Coach Jack Leggett will need to have two things fall into place.
First, he needs for a talented but as-yet-untested freshman class to grow-up quickly, as some from that group will undoubtedly have to contribute, ready-or-not.
Second, he needs for his returning players – many of whom are also youthful – to make the expected leap of improvement after an additional year’s worth of experience.
“I can’t really remember exactly when we were all this young,” Leggett allowed. “Usually you come back, and you say that this guy is going to play short, or second, first, third, left-field, centerfield, or catcher. So there’s some newness on this field, there’s no question about it. And there are some question-marks, and some kids have really got to step-up and play for us.”
A good example is at catcher, where a presumed strength for the Tigers became a reset scenario after Spencer Kieboom was pilfered from the lineup by the Washington Nationals in the fifth-round of the Major League draft. That left freshman Matt Reed and sophomore Garrett Boulware (the older brother of recent Clemson football signee, Ben Boulware,) as the primary options for that critical position.
“Our catcher, whoever that might be, has got to play for us,” said Leggett. “And he’s got to be good. Spencer Kieboom was really good for us last year, so Garrett Boulware and Matt Reed and Kevin Bradley (another freshman) have all got to continue to keep on improving. They’re all capable, but we’ve got to get better back there, and continue to keep working.”
As for the infield and outfield, the prospects are similar in that Leggett will have to find the right combination of experienced players and newcomers.
“Jon McGibbon, our first-baseman, is back and is a year-better,” said Leggett. “Steve Wilkerson’s a year-better at second-base or shortstop, whatever we decide to do with him, though I think second-base. Then it’s probably somebody new at short, and somebody new at third, maybe.
“Our centerfielder is back (Thomas Brittle), and he’s a good player out there. We have some newness in right-field. Tyler Slaton has got some experience in left-field. He’s a battler, and had a good preseason. And we’ve got some other kids who can move in-and-out of there.”
Regarding the Tigers’ highly-rated freshman class, Leggett thinks that on the mound, as well as in the field, that he has some players who can quickly make their presence felt.
“(lefties) Zack Erwin and Matthew Crownover have a chance to pitch for us early,” he said. “Brody Koerner is a right-handed pitcher I think has a chance to pitch for us. Position-player-wise, Steven Duggar in the outfield, who’s from Byrnes High School, has a chance to be a really good player here. Tyler Krieger also has a chance to be a good player for us at shortstop. Maleeke Gibson from Sumter could be an impact guy for us early, and could get some action.
“So I think we’ve got some good freshmen who can make a splash for us, and I’m excited about what they’re capable of doing here.”
Pitching-wise, sophomore Daniel Gossett has been groomed as the ace in the starting weekend rotation, and Leggett also foresees an important if not-quite-fully-decided role for junior right-hander Matt Campbell.
“Matt Campbell has got to have a big year for us,” said Leggett. “He’s back healthy now, and has got a lot of confidence. He’s got three pitches he throws really well, and he handles his position and holds runners on. He does a really good job of fielding his position as a pitcher, and throws strikes.
“So in a relief-role, I could see him being real valuable for us, whether he’s a closer, or whether he’s middle, or he’s long, or if he ends up starting for us. We’ll have to figure that out, but I think he’s going to be one of those good relief-pitchers for us, who can pitch real valuable innings for us with men on base.”
Their youth notwithstanding, Leggett says that the Tigers have practiced like they want to win, and right from the beginning.
“I don’t look at them as all that young, to be honest with you,” he said. “But we’ve got some work to do as far as experience, and we’ll work our way into that as the season progresses.”