NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Clemson counted on strong starting pitching in a push to snag one of the final NCAA Tourney bids.
Their first game in this field of 64 – it was nowhere to be found, the hitting and fielding no better to complete a disastrous formula in a 18-1 loss to Oregon, sending the Tigers to the loser’s bracket (2 p.m., ESPN3).
It is the worst NCAA Tournament loss for Clemson since a 17-run defeat to Texas A&M in 1999 – tying for the second-worst loss overall in tourney play.
The Tigers have lost seven of their last 10 tournament games now, stretching back to a home regional in 2011.
Clemson coach Jack Leggett’s assessment was simple, seeking a quick clean slate to the unpalatable start.
“They out-hit us, out-pitched us and out-fielded us,” Leggett said. “The good thing is in the regard of the score – it’s just one game.”
Sophomore left-handed starter Matthew Crownover isn’t Clemson’s ace, but he’d been pretty close this season, on a run of nine consecutive quality starts headed to the Music City.
A Ducks offense that hit only .259 in the regular season wasn’t impressed.
Clemson off to its first opening lead in eight games, 1-0, in the bottom of the second – Oregon right fielder Tyler Baumgartner ripped a leadoff triple to right field – the first of four knocks leading to a 3-1 Ducks lead.
Crownover gave up three runs or more in an inning for just the fourth time in 32 appearances – only the fifth time in a game total.
After ringing up a sixth strikeout through three, Oregon put the nail in the coffin of a career-worst start in the fourth inning.
The Ducks’ station-to-station attack chipped and chipped away until the floodgates opened.
After a leadoff single, three Oregon runners reached base – the runner scoring – without a ball leaving the infield thanks to three bunts in a row.
“They got a lot going with the bunt game,” Clemson senior second baseman Steve Wilkerson said. “That’s the game they play, West Coast-style. Bottom-line is they executed what they were doing and put the ball in the right spot. We were ready for it and they executed better than we did.”
After a double-steal and meeting at the mound, Oregon catcher Shaun Chase powered a three-run homer to left field.
After another pitching coach visit, Baumgartner lifted a solo shot to right field.
Crowover (8-5) gave up a career-high eight earned runs in 3 2/3 innings, surrendering 10 hits.
“Give them credit, they swung the bats pretty well,” said Crownover. “There were a few pitches I would like to have back today. They took advantage of them.”
“It’s baseball and it happens – picked a heck of a day for it to happen. But it’s baseball. I credit myself for being pretty consistent but today they were the better team.”
Oregon reached double-digit hits for the first time in 12 games – just the eighth this season, and they were just getting started.
Continuing a run from the fourth, the Clemson pitcher who began the next two innings didn’t walk to the dugout with three outs. Oregon lit up the Tigers’ middle relief for 10 runs on eight hits.
Lost in the game turned out of control was Oregon ace lefty Tommy Thorpe (11-4) keeping Clemson from mounting any measure of comeback.
After the early lead, the Tigers mounted one multi-hit inning, in the fifth frame. Trailing 8-1, Clemson loaded the bases with none out, and came up scoreless.
Thorpe went seven innings, allowing five hits and four walks with four strikeouts.
It was only Jack Leggett’s fourth NCAA Tourney opener loss with Clemson (a second season in a row however), but a turnaround from a blowout start isn’t unprecedented. In 1999, they lost 23-5 to Missouri State and recovered to win the road regional at Arkansas. That is the only time in the current tournament format the Tigers have lost the opener and won the regional.
“We could have lost 5-3, 7-1, walkoff – there’s a number ways to lose badly and feel bad,” Leggett said. “This is embarrassing and not the way you want to lose a ballgame. At the same time, we would’ve loved to have won the game and didn’t win the game. We have to put the loss behind us and get ready to play tomorrow.”