CLEMSON - Baseball weather? Far from it, but with under three weeks to opening day, Jack Leggett's Tigers opened practice at a newly-renovated Doug Kingsmore Stadium Saturday afternoon.
"Obviously it's cold," Clemson ace right-hander Daniel Gossett said, "but it's the first day of practice. It could be 10-below zero and we'd be ready to fire."
Friday, the Tigers were pegged for third in the Atlantic Division behind Florida State and N.C. State, where they've finished each of the last two regular seasons. Clemson's unpleasant deja vu came in the postseason each of those years too.
Tiger field chances minimal
"Anything less than a national championship is a disappointment," Gossett said. "Two years in a row to go down to Columbia to lose out in the regional is an obvious disappointment so this year we're definitely looking to go to Omaha and win it, as is everyone.
"It's an obvious goal, but this year we really have a chance."
The junior, a 10-game winner with a 2.56 ERA last year, anchors a starting staff that returns all its parts. Overall, they bring back 77 percent of their 2013 innings pitched.
Among the competition for the second and third weekend starting roles are sophomore lefties Zack Erwin (2013: 5-2, 3.45 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) and Matthew Crownover (7-3, 2.19 ERA, 1.16 WHIP), sophomore righty Clate Schmidt (3-4, 5.34 ERA) and junior righthander and T.L. Hanna product Jake Long, who sat out last season after a transfer from East Tennessee State (15 starts, 2-9 record, 4.38 ERA in 2012).
"Knowing that (Gossett) goes out there first is nice," now hall-of-fame coach Jack Leggett said. "He's always going to battle and give everything he's got.
"We have a number of guys to choose from. We have some pretty good guys at the back end of the bullpen. I'm excited about what we have for depth."
That depth carries over for the Tigers, where eight of their nine position starters return, but that comes with a caveat.
Senior third baseman/outfielder Shane Kennedy suffered a serious knee injury in fall ball and Leggett says the earliest he will return is mid-to-late April. He is the Tigers leading returner in batting average (.317), runs (47) and stolen bases (22).
"He's making progress and he's feeling good about it," Leggett said. "He's a strong kid and hopefully he'll come back quick."
The theme both at the plate and in the field is competition of a talented crop of underclassmen pushing the vets. On the infield, that includes former AIM All-Area products Eli White (Wren, true freshman) and Andrew Cox (B-HP, redshirt freshman).
A rock defensively at first base, senior Jon McGibbon figures to hold down one spot, while sophomore Tyler Krieger figures to hold on to shortstop after being a first-year starter. Senior second baseman Steve Wilkerson, who hit .291 with 37 RBIs last season, is being pushed though.
Boulware says team has feel of big expectations
"They can all move everywhere," Leggett said. "Watch us take our infield drills and you'll see good depth. I feel good about our middle and I feel good about our corners if everybody plays what they're capable of playing."
Leggett says he likes the mix of youth and experience to keep pushing.
"The key is this, we've got some guys coming back," he said, "but they all need to be better. They come back and they're the same and we've not really gone where we need to go. That's why you always bring in good players to push them to another level. Provide competition and if one of them emerges above a guy that's been here awhile - so be it.
"We've got some good young players that we have a lot of excitement about and confidence in."