Play Ball!!!

CLEMSON – With a warm and sunny day that saw temperatures in the 60s, it was as if the baseball Gods knew Friday was the first day of practice for Clemson. And if all goes as expected, the sun will shine brightly on the Tigers from now through late June.

Clemson enters this season ranked in the top five in nearly all the preseason polls, with Baseball American ranking the Tigers the highest at No. 2. Also, they were recently just picked as the favorite to win the ACC by the coaches, receiving eight of the 12 possible first place votes.

"It's nice and it's exciting for our fans," Clemson head baseball coach Jack Leggett said. "There's a lot of interest and our players are excited about it, but we also have to understand that we have to go out there and play one game at a time and just stay relaxed and not worry about what everybody else's expectations are and just take care of our own expectations."

The reason for the belief that the Tigers, which lost two games to one in the Super Regional at Baylor last year, are one of the top teams in the country, is due to their pitching and the fact that every starting position player returns.

Take the returnees and add to them some stellar fresh faces and you have the makings for something special.

"Coach makes a joke about it that potential is kind of like getting hit in the face," said senior third baseman Herman Demmink. "We really haven't done anything yet, but it's really good to know that we have that respect and we have that notoriety, not only in this state, but nationwide. All of us have worked very hard and being that this is my last year, it makes me very proud to know that I'm going to be a part of a team that has such capabilities."

Highlighting that phenomenal pitching staff is the return of junior right-handed pitcher Jason Berken, who was the team's number one starter in 2004, before having to undergo Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss all of 2005.

"I'm just glad to be back and part of the team," Berken said. "Last year, I was part of the team, but in my eyes a little different because I wasn't playing. That was the first time since I was 8-years-old that I wasn't able to play. …

"My velocity's increased since I've had the surgery. … My arm is strong, I feel healthy, I feel good and my arm is 100 percent and ready to go."

That means the weekend rotation will be Berken (2.90 career ERA), Josh Cribb (8-5, 3.54 ERA in 2005), and Stephen Faris (6-4, 2.60 ERA in 2005).

If that weren't enough, incoming transfer Steve Richard, who was the ace of Maine last season with a 9-1 record and 2.07 ERA, is set to be Clemson's closer, which it didn't have last season. During 2005, Leggett relied on a bullpen-by-committee effort and didn't have that "go-to" guy.

"It's definitely a spot I'd like to be in and it's where I want to succeed at," Richard said. "You've just got a few outs to get, so you can leave it all on the table right away. You have to be able to get strikeouts when you have to and groundballs when you have to, and that fits into my mentality a lot."

This could be the best pitching staff at Clemson since that immortal year of 1996, when the season ended with the Tigers owning the best ERA (3.03) in the nation. The 1996 pitching staff was anchored by Kris Benson, the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft, and Billy Koch, the fourth pick overall.

"I don't know if it's talent more than experience," Clemson pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We've certainly had a lot of good pitchers come through here before and obviously there are some expectations here, and there's always expectations, but I think the experience factor is the number one thing."

Offensively, everything seems to be in place, despite the leaving of the nation's top homerun hitter last year in designated hitter Kris Harvey, who belted 25.

Last season, the Tigers averaged 1.15 home runs per game, which 22nd nationally. Those numbers shouldn't decline much, if any. At the same time they were one of the ACC leaders in sacrifice bunts. This is a team that excels in all facets offensively.

"We did lose Harvey, but I think the big thing this year is we're going to be a lot more consistent with our hitting and stay on a more even plain," said sophomore second baseman Taylor Harbin, who batted .345, with 10 homers and 63 RBIs last year. "We can, but and we've got some more speed this year, so I think the fundamentals of the game hitting wise is going to be a big factor for us."

Expected to take Harvey's role as the designated hitter is junior college transfer Maquez Smith, who has good speed and a solid bat.

With everything in place, there shouldn't be many storm clouds overhead. Top Stories