Tigers confident bats will lead to 'next level'

Baseball - Bradley LeCroy throws batting practice on the first day

Photo by Mark Crammer

Baseball - Bradley LeCroy throws batting practice on the first day

CLEMSON – From opening day on last season, Garrett Boulware was one of a few consistent forces in the Clemson lineup.

And with the wear-and-tear of the catcher position, that can be an issue over the course of the year – but it never really showed.

He started 60-of-62 games, ranking third on the team in plate appearances (257). The T.L. Hanna product led the Tigers in home runs (8) and slugging percentage (.476), while ranking second-best in average (.308). In turn, the rising junior finished eighth among lineup regulars in a category you don't want to lead in, strikeout percentage (11.28).

Expect him to get a little more rest from behind the plate this season, however, as help is on the way.

His name? Chris Okey. Rated a top-20 prospect out of Eustis High (Fla.), Okey was the highest-ranked Floridian to sign with a college.

"Garrett Boulware and Chris Okey are two real quality catchers," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. "Garrett's arm is getting better and offensively, they both swing the bat well. One of them will be catching and the other will be DHing, at least in the beginning."

Leggett values the extra quality depth at catcher, but that's not the only thing Okey brings to the table.

"It helps a lot," said Leggett. "They're both really competitive and both really good leaders for us. They've both got the personality. We'll figure out who our top guy is when it's all over, but now we could play either one of them and feel really good about it."

The Tigers are looking to improve offensively in a wide range of areas with a number of veterans returning, but – at least early – there could still be some learning experiences.

Clemson ranked in the lower tier of the ACC last season in home runs (22; 8th), doubles (95; 8th), triples (15; 8th) and batting average (.276; 9th).

They do return seven of nine from the lineup to start – 2013 leader in average (.317) and stolen bases (22), Shane Kennedy – out until at least April (knee injury).

Leggett says the experience isn't worth much if they didn't improve over the offseason, and Boulware believes they have done just that.

Boulware says team has feel of big expectations

None

"I think it's going to be a much more mature offense," he said. "We'll know how to execute when the time is needed. It's not even that we struggled last year. It was timely hitting and this year I don't think we'll have a problem with that. (We'll) have a better approach.

"I think it's going to be a really good offensive team – not to mention we'll have awesome pitching too. Our offense is going to really take us to the next level."

Clemson returns its top-six in RBIs, including Kennedy. Starting center fielder Thomas Brittle is the only lineup regular who moved on and junior Tyler Slaton (.263 avg/4 2B/18 R in 2013) is expected to take over his role.

Slaton's move to center leaves a wide-open competition in left field.

"We have some good inter-team competition without Shane being available," Leggett said. "We have Mike Triller (and) Andrew Cox (who) can go out there, who had a good fall for us. Maleeke Gibson could be a really good player for us.

"We're hoping that we have somebody emerge in the next couple weeks to show that we can't play without them."

Those battles extend to the infield as well, and Leggett believes that will raise everybody's game starting opening day, Feb. 14, hosting Eastern Michigan.

"Offensively we have a really good chance to be better than last year," said Leggett. "We've got more guys that can run. We've got more interchangeable parts and more competition that way. We know how we have to play to win. I like the fact we have a little bit more to choose from this year."

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