Road to Omaha Begins Friday

CLEMSON – Even though he's a red-shirt junior, Clemson starting pitcher Jason Berken has spent the last two seasons as a team captain. Thus, it's only fitting he gets the nod to begin the campaign toward the College World Series.

Berken, who is 9-3 this season with a 2.76 ERA, will face UNC Asheville (28-33) at 7 p.m., Friday in the Tigers' first game of the NCAA Tournament.

"Their leadoff hitter runs real well and their scrappy hitters," Berken said. "They're going to put the ball in play. They're swinging the bat real well right now. They won their conference tournament and they're confident. They're going to be a good team and similar to the other teams in their conference."

Oddly enough for Berken, this will be his first-ever start in an NCAA Tournament game. His only appearance came in 2003, when he pitched one inning and allowed three hits and one run.

"I got excited when I learned I was pitching Friday," he said. "It's been a long time since I've been in that situation. I'm excited more than anything. I'm pitching the first game for the number one seed and I'm just looking forward to the opportunity."

Also, Berken will be going for his first-ever postseason win of any kind. He's pitched in three ACC Tournament games, starting two, and has an all-time record of 0-0.

However, he believes that's about to change.

"The biggest thing is you've got to get ahead of the hitters and throw strikes and let the defense work and not get into long counts," Berken said. "I feel like I've been throwing the ball pretty good the last seven, eight or nine starts, so I've just got to go out there and give the team another good start."

UNC Asheville will start leftie Chris Nigro (5-10, 5.76 ERA).

Clemson coach Jack Leggett has all the confidence in the world in Berken, although that's not a difficult thing to do.

"The last four times out, I think he's gradually gotten better and I liked the way he pitched last weekend," Leggett said. "He's a guy that can come out in the first ballgame and give you a little bit of a lift."

Bulldogs coach Willie Stewart knows getting a win over the topped-ranked Tigers will be a difficult task, to say the very least.

"If we play good baseball and they play good baseball, we have to play flawless baseball," he said.

However, Stewart's team, which is making its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in the 20 years of being a Division I program, said there is no intimidation factor. The Bulldogs played at Florida State and at Texas Tech earlier in the year, so the crowd factor won't make them nervous.

"We're here and we're not going to just sit back and be giving a pass," he said. "We're here to play and play competitively. We feel like we've earned the right to be here, so we're going to play."

As motivation for his team, Stewart said he is going to point out the fact that the Tigers lost home games to Mercer, Western Carolina, Winthrop and Furman. He also mentioned the fact that N.C. A&T held a 2-1 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh last year's regional.

"You make it noted, but you don't harp on it," Stewart said. "You let it known that it can be done. It's just a matter of going out and playing the game the right way and having a good time."

CUTigers.com Top Stories