Clemson Baseball Preview: Does Expectation Change In 2020?
Expectation is a funny word when it comes to sports.
It can be something teams love to embrace. It can also make people uncomfortable and be something that invokes negative thoughts.
With the 2020 college baseball season beginning Friday, it’s a stark reminder that Clemson hasn’t reached its expectation as a storied program since 2010.
In case you don’t know what that expectation is, look on the back of the official Tiger baseball cap. You’ll see the word stitched into the bottom: “Omaha.”
Having that host city of the College World Series on there is a Clemson tradition, but it’s also a daily reminder of where the program expects to be.
“We don’t have to talk about expectations,” Clemson head coach Monte Lee said. “We all know what the expectations are. Everybody in that dugout has social media. Everybody that lives in this area knows what the expectation of Clemson baseball is and we embrace those expectations.
“For me and our guys, we’re going to come out here and try to maximize each day and compete every pitch.”
That’s a realistic view and one that serves working with young people well.
“I think when you start getting into expectations, especially outside expectations, you’re putting a lot of pressure on a young athlete,” Lee said. “I don’t really spend a whole lot of time talking about expectations other than your job is to come out here and compete every pitch.”
In many ways, that philosophy has worked for the Tigers. Since Lee took over for legendary coach Jack Leggett in 2016, Clemson has won 168 games, which ranks 14th nationally during that span. That’s an average of 42 wins per season.
The Tigers are one of only 13 programs to make the NCAA tournament in the last four years.
Lee captured an ACC baseball championship crown in his first season. He’s had 24 players drafted by MLB teams. Seth Beer and Logan Davidson were first-round selections each of the last two summers.
However, Lee has yet to do what his predecessor was ultimately let go for: not getting to the College World Series.
To be more specific, Clemson hasn’t gotten out of the regional round into a super regional since the last trip to Omaha 10 years ago.
The reasons are plentiful, and one of the most notable has already impacted a 2020 season that hasn’t begun yet.
Is this Clemson squad good enough to end the streak and return this program to Omaha?
Heading into the season, it’s hard to know.
Clemson doesn't have the proven star power of previous seasons under Lee.
Maybe that changes throughout the 2020 season, but no one knows for sure who it’s going to be. Outfielder Michael Green, one of the top returning hitters, has already been dismissed from the team.
What the Tigers do have is pitching, something they’ve lacked the last couple of years in the postseason, when it matters most.
However, 2020 feels different. Pitching should be the strength early on while the offense works to develop an identity.
Lee is very confident in Friday starter Sam Weatherly, a reliever last year who has a variety of pitches and the “best stuff,” Lee says. Davis Sharpe and Mat Clark return after being the most stable forces on the mound in 2019.
Spencer Strider, who’s starting Sunday, is working his way back from Tommy John surgery in hopes of providing a huge spark down the road.
There are other names to mention: Carter Raffield, Keyshawn Askew, Mack Anglin and Holt Jones, among others.
And then there’s closer Carson Spiers, who can be a real force at the end of games. If those pieces come together, Clemson has every chance to be back in a regional with a chance at reaching the expectation.
The offense will need it to be. Clemson hit 82 home runs a year ago; 48 of those walked out the door at the end of 2019.
Lee says the team may have to use more “small ball” and “manufacture runs.” That’s a way of saying it might not have the same kind of power fans are used to seeing at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
Clemson does have athleticism, which it will use on the base paths and on defense. Those things help win games as well.
“We’ve got a really young team, but we’re all super confident,” Sharpe said. “We’re optimistic about this year. We all have super high expectations. Everybody is going to go out there with some swagger and some confidence and that’s what we need.”
The one thing Clemson won’t have is much time to figure things out before getting to the feeling of must-win games.
The schedule starts with five games in six days. Lee opted for a heavier workload early to get his pitchers innings so they’ll have experience and something to evaluate moving forward.
Liberty, this weekend’s opening opponent, won 43 games a year ago and returns its entire starting rotation, so it’s gonna be a tough test right out of the gate.
The annual rivalry series with South Carolina, which ended a four-year losing streak to the Tigers in the series in 2019, is in two weeks.
ACC play begins the week after with a solid Boston College squad coming to DKS that’s looking to make some noise in 2020.
The ACC looks especially strong this year, with Louisville and Miami ranked first and third, respectively, in the D1baseball.com preseason rankings. Clemson plays both on the road.
The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division. That might feel low to some, but this conference will be relentless this year and after Louisville, Miami and Florida State, it could be a jumbled mess figuring out who’s in the next tier.
With all that said, should Omaha even be the expectation for 2020?
It doesn't feel that way. If this team gets in and out of a regional, whether it makes the 8-team CWS field, it's done something the previous nine teams, including four under Lee, didn't.
The thing is, Clemson could develop into a really good team, but it might take time.
If February and March don’t go well, the season is doomed? Wait until April or May before deciding what the expectation for 2020 should be.