When the bubble popped Monday morning, the Clemson baseball team landed on its feet in the NCAA tournament.
A strong finish to a marginally disappointing season in one of college baseball’s premier leagues resulted in one of the final four spots in the 64-team field and an invitation to the regional in Nashville, Tenn., hosted by Vanderbilt.
Clemson’s 39th appearance in the tournament will be the fifth-most in NCAA Division I, and the 20th in 21 seasons under coach Jack Leggett. By winning 11 of its final 15 games, including two in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Clemson came off the bubble to overtake Central Florida and become the seventh ACC team in the field.
“It was a little bit of a sleepless night because you never know where things will fall,” said Leggett, whose team began the season ranked 11th by Baseball America. “It was a relief for them.”
Seeded third in the regional, Clemson (36-23) plays No. 2 Oregon (42-18) at 1 p.m. Host Vandy (41-18) plays Big East tournament champion Xavier (29-27) Friday evening.
Clemson has played neither Oregon, which reinstated baseball in 2009 after 28 years as a club program, nor Xavier and hasn’t faced Vanderbilt in several years. However, Leggett knows Vandy coach Tim Corbin well. Corbin served under Leggett at Clemson from 1994 to 2002.
“I knew, eventually, it was going to happen,” said Leggett, who’d already swapped pleasantries with Corbin. “I’ll be excited to see him, but he’s a gamer, a competitor, so it’s more of a business trip.”
Corbin has built a national powerhouse in 12 seasons and sent several top players to the big leagues, including pitchers David Price (Baltimore), Mike Minor (Atlanta) and Sonny Gray (Oakland) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (Pittsburgh). Right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede could be one of the top picks in this week’s MLB Draft.
With two “aces” in Daniel Gossett and Matthew Crownover, Leggett said he’ll examine the potential matchups before choosing the starter for Oregon, understanding that a win would probably pit Clemson with the hosts and, likely, Beede.
Gossett, a junior righthander, leads Clemson’s staff with a 7-1 record, 102 strikeouts and a 1.78 ERA. He is on pace to have the best ERA by a Clemson pitcher since 1998. Crownover leads the teams in wins with an 8-5 record and has a 2.26 ERA. With a little run support, crisper fielding, smarter baserunning it might have a bigger year.
“It was a big relief,” said Crownover, a sophomore lefthander of the invitation. “It’s been a rollercoaster type of year.
“We’ve been right there all year,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting that one big hit or one big pitch made in us winning 10 more games.
“I feel like we’ve made it. We’re in a regional. Now it comes down to a point where we’ve got to win three games to advance. That’s the number – 3.”