Jack Leggett has been thinking about this day pretty much since a fly-ball to right field ended Clemson’s season in Columbia last year.
Opening Day, where the newly-minted hall-of-famer’s No. 13 Tigers will host Eastern Michigan for the first of three games this weekend at 4 p.m. Friday, then 2:30 and 1 on Saturday and Sunday respectively.
“I’ve already played this game in my mind,” Leggett said this week on Clemson radio flagship station WCCP. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years. Even I get a little butterflies going in — what’s going to happen?...That’s 37 years and 2,000 games so you know that’s going through your kids’ minds too.”
With upwards of three freshmen in the lineup this weekend, he’s relished all the time he’s had to prepare though.
“(There’s) nine months of preparation and you almost need all of those nine months,” Leggett said. “It takes a while. There are so many intricacies to the game and so much you can learn from. It requires so much experience to do that. It’s always tough.”
Among freshmen who are likely to see time are former AIM all-area selections Eli White (Wren) and Andrew Cox (B-HP) and top-10-rated N.C. product Weston Wilson. Cox might make his debut at first base, where steady senior Jon McGibbon might miss some time after sustaining a knee injury in practice (stitches after a collision).
With third base open due to injury as well (Shane Kennedy, out until April), only sophomore shortstop Tyler Krieger has a spot nailed down in the infield.
Two starters return in the outfield, in sophomore right fielder Steven Duggar (.300 BA/30 RBIs in 2013) and new center fielder Tyler Slaton (.263 BA/4 2Bs). Where Slaton vacates, in left, is another area of competition.
“We do have some inter-team competition,” said Leggett, “and to me, it brings out the best in everybody. Nobody should be resting their laurels thinking that’s their spot.”
Where there’s no question is the Friday ace, as junior right-hander Daniel Gossett (10-4) takes the mound in game one (10-4). Lefty sophomore Matthew Crownover is in the No. 2 role, while junior transfer and T.L. Hanna grad righty Jake Long makes his Clemson debut starting on Sunday.
Pitching coach Dan Pepicelli is feeling as good going into day one as any of his five seasons in TigerTown.
“We’re not waiting to get to the season to find out what we have,” said Pepicelli. “We’ve had to do that in the past. We feel like we have a good feel about what the weekend rotation (holds). We know what we’re getting.”
Gossett says he's grown most in the mental game over his first two years-plus on campus, harnessing his talent with increased consistency.
""It's exciting to have the opportunity to start the season off on a good note," said Gossett. "It's an honor to get this chance to be the opening-day starter for the second year in a row. It's been a long offseason and we've been practicing extremely hard for this moment. It's exciting to show everyone what we've been working towards."
The weekend opponent, Eastern Michigan, took the bus down to South Carolina through the night Wednesday, trading highs in 20s and 30s for 40s and low 50s in the Upstate.
The Eagles were picked fifth in their MAC division, returning nine position starters and eight pitchers. Three in that veteran lineup hit over .300 last season (RF Sam Ott, LF Austin Wilson and C Adam Sonabend) and two had 40-plus RBIs (Ott and DH Lee Longo).
"They have a quality program with really good arms and hitters," Leggett said. "It will be a good challenge for our team to start off on the right foot.
"The game is still on for Friday and we will re-evaluate tonight and Friday morning to see where the field is at (due to the winter weather this week). We're looking forward to getting out there and playing someone other than ourselves in front of big crowds at Doug Kingsmore Stadium."