Putting the right swing on the bat

CLEMSON - Trailing by two runs with one out and runners on the corners, Clemson DH Chris Epps calmly walked up to the plate to try to get some kind of production for a struggling Clemson offense.

There wasn't much hope by the 5,000 or so Clemson faithful that piled into Doug Kingsmore Stadium last Saturday night that Epps would be the guy to get it started. At that point, the Clemson sophomore was 0-for-2 against Oklahoma State starter Andrew Oliver, including one strikeout and was just 5 for his last 26 overall.

But it was at that point Epps started to see the baseball. That's when the 6-foot, 190-pound athlete from Stone Mountain, Ga., lined a base hit into right field, scoring Brad Miller from third and getting Clemson on the board. Though the Tigers eventually lost that regional game 3-2, that one hit played a big role in why Clemson (44-20) is on its way to Tempe, Ariz., and just two wins from another trip to the College World Series.

That one hit lifted Epps' confidence to an all-time high and sparked a Clemson offense that would score 31 runs over the next three games to win the Clemson Regional and advance to Saturday's 9 p.m. Super Regional game at No. 5 national seed Arizona State (47-12).

From that point, Epps was 9-of-14 at the plate, had six RBIs, two home runs and a double. All those numbers were good enough to earn him MVP honors for the Clemson Regional.

"Once you get in there, you begin to get rhythm like Coach (Jack Leggett) always says and things just happen naturally," Epps said. "You keep swinging and you keep your head up even when things aren't going your way."

Things definitely weren't going Epps way early in the season. He only started in six of the first 42 games and was just five for his first 30 at-bats. But he never gave up on the prospects of getting back in the lineup and continued to follow his head coach's advice and continued to work hard.

"He kept his mind in the game and his head in the game," Leggett said. "Anytime a kid is not playing or someone is playing a little bit better, I always try to go out of my way to tell them to keep their head in the game and show focus."

Epps showed focus by being ready when he got his chance again. With the Tigers needing some kind of spark offensively, especially at the top of the lineup, Leggett took a chance and penciled in Epps as the designated hitter in the lineup, replacing centerfielder Addison Johnson, who was four for his last 38 at the time.

"I wasn't frustrated at all that I wasn't playing. Lord willing, I knew I was going to get my opportunity at some point, but it was more of what I was going to do with my opportunity when I got it," Epps said.

That opportunity came against Georgia Tech on April 25 and Epps responded with a hit, two drawn walks and scored three runs in Clemson's 8-5 victory. Though his .294 batting average and 24 RBIs are not anything to write home about, but they are consistent numbers that provided the Tigers enough offense to finally get the bats going again and played a big role in their 16-5 overall record since he came into the lineup fulltime.

"This could not have happened to a better kid," Leggett said. "Chris did a great job of (staying focused). He is a great team player and has a great attitude. He has a great outlook on things.

"The game has come around to him. I always tell them the game is going to come around to you. It came around to him midway through the season and he has been a catalyst for us in the lead-off spot. It could not have happened to a better kid. He worked hard. I'm proud as heck of him. It is a great story."

It's a story that got even better in the regional championship game. Keeping with his never give up attitude, Epps went to every player in the dugout, after three errors in the seventh inning allowed Oklahoma State to build a 5-1 lead, and told them to keep their heads up and not to give up.

"I was telling the guys throughout the whole game that we were not out of it," he said. "We were down 5-1, but I told them to look at Sunday. We scored 25 runs in two games so I felt we were never out of it."

And then he did something about it. After Matt Sanders reached on a throwing error with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Epps hit a bomb to the opposite side in left centerfield - the same spot he pulled a double to in the fifth inning that setup Clemson's first run - to pull the Tigers within two runs at the time.

The two-run home run sparked enthusiasm back in the Clemson dugout and led to the team's three-run eighth inning to take a lead it would not give up.

"Things trickle down," Epps said. "You start it off one night and the next night you do the same thing. You're teammates start to see those things and then everyone starts to build off that.

"That was a big momentum swing for us."

Epps finished the Clemson Regional with a .526 batting average, a big reason why the media voted him the MVP.

"I never would imagine being an MVP of a regional or anything like that," he said. "I just wanted to go out there and play for my team. This is a team sport. One through nine did their thing so I just had to step up in a big-game situation."

And like the Sean Clark story in Clemson's run to the 2006 College World Series, what Epps did over the four-day period in Clemson last weekend is a story that will be remembered for years to come.

"This will be one of those stories that I tell our players about," Leggett said. "This is a kid that did not get his opportunities early. He got his opportunity late, but he took advantage of it."

And that story started when he started seeing the baseball.

"When you are in a groove, you start to feel it," Epps said. "When you are seeing the ball, the baseball starts to look like a beach ball. You can't explain why things like that happen, but you know you are putting the right swing on the bat."

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