CLEMSON – Before the first pitch, hit or home run, Clemson head coach Erik Bakich hoped by the end of the season his players would have the keys to the car and they would be driving the Tigers down the road to Omaha.
As Clemson gets set to host Lipscomb in Game 1 of the Clemson Regional Friday at 1 p.m., that is exactly what has happened. The players have already driven the program to its first ACC Championship in seven years, and now, as the No. 4 national seed, they have an opportunity to make a serious push to the College World Series in Omaha.
Bakich knew then, way back in February, that his team was only going to be as good as the leadership he had in the clubhouse. He knew they had the talent and skills to be a good team from a physical standpoint, but how long might it take them to learn to play together. That was the key.
“There is no bad team. There are only bad leaders,” Bakich said.
Clemson’s head coach credits the job of captains Riley Bertram, Blake Wright, Ryan Ammons and Jackson Lindley for keeping the team together, especially when they were being dragged through the mud at 17-14 and 2-8 in the ACC at the start of April.
“They did not let the team get negative,” Bakich said. “Because of that, they deserve a lot of the credit.”
Over the last two months, Bakich could see his team coming together. It was the little things, things no one else really picks up on.
“Before Coach (Jimmy) Belanger could step out to take a mound visit, Cooper (Ingle) is already doing it. And the infield is coming together, and they are settling the pitcher down,” Bakich said. “Before we are about to say, ‘Heads up on this.’ You hear Riley Bertram say it. So those are the ways.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh yeah, the coaches just turned the keys over,’ but our guys are doing the little things that are taking the place of what the coaches might do in that moment. That is exactly what we might need. That is exactly what we would have wanted. So, that is really good to see. That only comes through time, experience and repetition. They are just doing a great job with that. The leaders of this team are doing a fantastic job.”
Bertram says it is not just the captains, it’s everyone on the team. These are the reasons why they went from 17-14 and going nowhere fast to 43-17 and hosting a regional.
“You can point to a lot of things, but I personally point to the players in the clubhouse,” Clemson’s second baseman said. “Really, all of them. It is a full body. Once you realize you need everybody, whether you are in the lineup or not in the lineup, whether you are a star player or a role player, you really need everyone.
“I think we fully got that commitment from everyone, and you just saw the offense string together quality at-bats and the pitching staff lengthening their starts and the backend of the bullpen really coming in strong. So, it was really cool to see everyone put that together.”
It has been a cool ride for Bertram, as he has watched how the Tigers have grown since last summer, after he followed Bakich and assistant head coach Nick Schnabel from Michigan.
“It was a unique experience,” the graduate student said. “Fortunately, I came in with the coaching staff with Coach Bakich and Coach Schnabel. The seniors and the underclassmen, they had a lot of questions. They were interested in knowing how the coaching staff was going to be. It allowed me to insert my voice in spots like that, but to that point they were super hungry.
“The players were willing to try something different. So, they listened to the coaching staff and really embraced what they could bring to Clemson.”
–photo courtesy of ACC Communications
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