No. 1 vs. No. 2: Showdown Approaches

Top-ranked Clemson and second-ranked Florida State meet in a showdown that will help set the tone, not to mention the top seeds, for next week's Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Of course, the Seminoles have had all kinds of troubles in Clemson, winning just twice since 1992. FSU's Chip Baker talks about the, hmmm, unique atmosphere at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. He also likes the 'Noles' makeup, saying, "In a good sense, and not a cocky sense, (this team has) a lot of confidence."

Florida State's baseball season is nearing its sixth month. Talk about a contrast in settings: The Seminoles opened their regular-season in the tranquil backdrop of Hawaii and end it this weekend in the rabid-charged atmosphere at Clemson.

Much has been accomplished, but plenty remains.

"Like we told them (players) at the beginning of the year, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon," FSU assistant coach Chip Baker said Wednesday. "And we're still running."

After playing 13 consecutive home games, the second-ranked Seminoles (48-12, 15-6), close the regular-season at top-ranked Clemson (43-9, 16-5) in a three-game showdown that will help set the tone, not to mention the top seeds, for next week's Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in St. Petersburg.

FSU, which is riding a 14-game winning streak, is currently chasing the Tigers, North Carolina and Wake Forest in the ACC standings. A fourth-place finish would toss the Seminoles into next Wednesday's 10 a.m. tournament game against fifth-seeded Georgia Tech, which is at home this weekend against the Tar Heels.

Of course, FSU is in a difficult position considering its history against the talented Tigers. The Seminoles, 20-24 overall against Clemson, have won just two of 15 games at Doug Kingsmore Stadium since 1992. Additionally, the Tigers are the only team in the ACC that has a winning record against FSU since the Seminoles joined the league 10 years ago.

Baker, the Seminoles' third base coach who will step off the field and into baseball administrative duties next year, credits the Tigers' home-field advantage for their success.

"If I could figure it out, it wouldn't be this way," Baker said of the Seminoles' difficulties at Clemson. "It's a different atmosphere. It used to be a huge ballpark, a huge ballpark. But they have moved the fences in, I guess 10-12 feet. Before you could do BP (batting practice) and not hit a ball out. The wind blows in usually. And the outfield goes down hill and then it goes up hill towards the fence. It's just a little different."

The stadium has 3,800 permanent seats, but is capable of holding over 6,000 thanks to a hill area down the left field line that is popular with the Clemson student body. The park has dimensions of 328 feet down the left-field line, 380 feet in left-center, 400 feet to straight-away center, 385 feet in the right-center alley, and 338 down the right-field line, according to the Tigers' website. The FSU series in 1994 drew 14,500, the highest three-game series total in Clemson history.

"Home plate is a long way from a dugout, too," Baker said. "And it's up on what I call a plateau, that means the ball can get away from the catcher and you can lose sight of it a third base -- at least I can since I am not tall enough. It's just a different field. Their fans are the most rabid fans. ... it has been better the last few times up there but it used to be awful."

Baker is also hoping the Seminoles' lengthy homestand will help in the team's preparation. FSU was scheduled to practice at Dick Howser Stadium Wednesday afternoon. The team will depart for Clemson Thursday morning and practice at Doug Kingsmore Stadium Thursday evening. The team will return to Tallahassee following Sunday's third game, but it's a quick stop. FSU departs for St. Petersburg Monday morning.

Baker said FSU has traditionally played Clemson during April in past years.

"To me, I like being at home before being on the road because, in the past, you come back home, wash your clothes, practice two days and go back," Baker said. "It's a different feeling right now. We've been very comfortable. And we are going to try to make it as comfortable for our kids as possible. We will work out up there Thursday night, just to get a look and a feel for the field. We've lost balls before in the grandstand -- all the white shirts. And their seats are close to ground level. So, it's going to be a challenge."

Obviously, FSU believes it's up for the challenge.

The Seminoles swept stubborn Maryland last week, winning the final two games in the bottom of the ninth inning. A week earlier against Duke, FSU scored 49 runs, the second-most ever in an ACC series. Seven of nine starters are hitting better than .312, with freshman Stephen Drew (.390) leading the way. FSU is hitting .317 as a team.

Ace Matt Lynch (11-1) has the best earned-run average (3.31) among the starting pitchers and Daniel Hodges enters with seven saves, though he was roughed up a bit against Maryland last Saturday. Reliever Daniel Davidson (6-0) has made 22 appearances, third behind Hodges (27) and closer Kevin Lynch (27).

On Monday at Virginia, Clemson coach Jack Leggett notched his 800th career victory, Khalil Greene set the ACC record for career doubles and Jeff Baker tied the Clemson career home run record in a 5-3 victory. Greene is on an 18-game hitting streak with 83 career doubles, while Baker has 53 career home runs.

While FSU still has plenty left to prove, Baker likes the Seminoles' makeup.

"It's hard to compare (to past teams) because we haven't won anything yet," Baker said.

"In a good sense, and not a cocky sense, (this team has) a lot of confidence. Even when we came back from North Carolina, and lost the three games, and we came back from Wake Forest, where we lost two, we knew we had a good ballclub. I think the early test against Stanford, which we played well against, and we beat Arizona State and Florida, we knew we had confidence that we could play. We just didn't play well (against North Carolina). If you get beat, you get beat. But if you give a game away, that makes you even madder."

And, speaking of emotions, Baker still has warm feelings about last weekend's series against Maryland -- his last on third base at Dick Howser Stadium during the regular season. Baker was presented with a Rolex watch prior to the game and his jersey No. 3 was printed on the infield behind second base. Former FSU shortstop Link Jarrett, who has been at Flagler, will join the staff next season.

"It was more (emotional) than I thought it was going to be," Baker admitted. "When they brought me in the back (locker room) and gave me the watch -- I was ready for infield (before the game). I have my mind on infield. I had rosin and pine tar on my hands because the bat slipped out of my hand Saturday. I had no idea. I was okay doing infield. (But when they) put that 3 on the ballfield, I about lost it."

Of course, any losses now would slow the Seminoles' quest of reaching the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., next month for the 19th time in school history. What FSU began in January, the Seminoles hope to end on a positive note in June.

"I have a (FSU summer) camp that same week(of CWS), but that will be a good problem to have," Baker said.


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