Thursday, April 10, 2014

series preview: Clemson

Date/Time: Fri.-Sun., April 11-13; 6:00, 2:30, 1:00

TV: Cavaliers Live on Saturday and Sunday

Record against the Tigers: 51-102

Last meeting: UVA 2-1 over Clemson (6-5, 6-7, 8-5); 3/15-3/17/13, Clemson

Last game: UVA 9, JMU 3 (4/8); UGA 6, CU 2 (4/8)

Last weekend:
UVA 2-1 over Pitt (4-0, 1-2, 3-0)
NCSt. 2-1 over CU (6-1, 4-9, 1-7)

National rankings:

Baseball America: UVA #2; CU #14
Collegiate Baseball: UVA #3; CU #22
NCBWA: UVA #1; CU #13
Perfect Game: UVA #2; CU #15
Coaches: UVA #2; CU #14

Pitching probables:

LHP Nathan Kirby (6-1, 1.03) vs. LHP Matthew Crownover (6-2, 2.23)

RHP Josh Sborz (3-1, 2.63) vs. RHP Daniel Gossett** (3-0, 2.25)

LHP Brandon Waddell (4-1, 3.14) vs. RHP Jake Long** (2-0, 4.06)

**NOTE: Clemson hasn't announced their starters for Saturday and Sunday.  While their coach Jack Leggett can be prickly this way sometimes, Gossett and Long have been injured, shoulder and back respectively, and there's legitimate uncertainty as to whether they'll be available.

The second, and much tougher, half of the ACC slate begins this weekend.  Rarely does Clemson not pose a challenge, and they've played in every ACC tournament since its inception.  Brian O'Connor, however, has only ever lost one series to them while at UVA - that in his first season - and only 5 of 25 games since then.

The pressure remains on from below, however; Miami gained a game on UVA last week, no thanks to the Hokies, who successfully blew a 7-2 lead on the Canes on Friday and rolled over the next two days for the Miami sweep.  UVA has work to do to hold off Miami, if the Hoos want a top-two seed in the ACC tourney, and can't let up even with a tougher schedule than that of the Canes.

Scouting report:

-- First base: Shane Kennedy (.222-1-7). Tore his ACL five months ago and raced through rehab to return a few weeks ago against Florida State.  Had a very good season last year (his first with Clemson after transferring from the juco ranks) with an excellent combination of speed, power, and average, resulting in a selection to the ACC second team.  Off to a slow start this year, however.  Right handed hitter usually batting seventh.  Jon McGibbon had been playing the position in Kennedy's absence, but is hitting only .140 on the year.

-- Second base: Steve Wilkerson (.347-4-18).  Switch-hitter who is Clemson's top hitter for both power and average this year.  Team leader in BA, OBP, SLG, HR, and 2B.  Bats sixth for whatever reason, even after the lineup shakeup that Jack Leggett installed against Georgia this week, which was the first change of any kind in the order in 11 games.  Superstition maybe, I dunno.  Wilkerson is a senior and a two-time second-team ACC selection and a tough out, but not a great fielder.

-- Third base: Weston Wilson (.321-2-19). Righty freshman who has forced his way into the lineup and been hard to keep out of it, impressing with both bat and glove.  Leggett has used junior Jay Baum here at times (Baum is never out of the lineup) but not since March 19.  Wilson generally bats ninth.

-- Shortstop: Tyler Krieger (.309-1-19).  Has started every game here, and been slotted second in the lineup in all but one, moving to third this week against Georgia.  Had a .958 fielding percentage last year as a freshman but is tremendously error-prone this year, dropping his FP to .876.

-- Left field: Jay Baum (.313-0-16).  Baum has started every game, nine at third base and the rest in LF.  When Baum plays third, Andrew Cox (.167-0-1) or Mike Triller (.318-0-1) takes over in left.  Both are left-handed batters while Baum is a righty.  Given latest results, Triller would seem the likely choice if Baum moves to the infield at any point.  Baum was a career .224 hitter entering the year but has improved mightily this year, although his power is strictly in gap shots - he's never hit a home run.  He hit at the bottom of the lineup most of the year, 7th or 8th, but moved to 2nd against UGA.

-- Center field: Tyler Slaton (.328-2-19).  The only Clemson player who has played the same position and batted in the same spot for all 32 games: leadoff.  Diminutive lefty with impeccable fielding record.

-- Right field: Steven Duggar (.320-0-23).  Also has started every game here, due to his arm.  Major base-stealing threat with approximately one every other game, but also somewhat strikeout-prone.  Cleanup hitter despite not hitting a home run all year.

-- Catcher: Chris Okey (.270-3-30).  Actually the catching duties are split almost exactly down the middle between Okey and Garrett Boulware (.298-2-22).  Whichever doesn't catch, DHes.  Freshman Okey has committed fewer errors but Boulware has a slightly better record at catching base-stealers.  Okey, the freshman, bats fifth, while Boulware has batted third all year except for the UGA game, where he was bumped to seventh.

-- Pitching staff:

Friday: LHP Matthew Crownover (6-2, 2.23).  Sophomore who was Clemson's weekday starter last year, so UVA hasn't seen him.  Middling velocity that wasn't there at all last year as he pitched his way back from Tommy John surgery, but excellent command; has walked only 9 batters.  Usual Saturday pitcher this year whose move to Friday is due to Daniel Gossett's shoulder injury.

Saturday: RHP Daniel Gossett (3-0, 2.25).  Lanky veteran right-hander with similar velocity to Crownover; sinking action on a lot of his pitches.  Allowing a .193 batting average.  16th-round draft pick out of high school.  UVA has seen him twice and struggled each time; first in the 2012 ACC tourney where he allowed one run in 6 2/3, and again last year in the regular season where UVA scratched out two runs in 7 innings.  If Gossett can't go, the likely next option is RHP Clate Schmidt (4-5, 3.92), probably the hardest thrower on the team but a guy who was a weekend starter last year and found himself in the bullpen to start this season.  Schmidt has three starts this year in 13 appearances, with only one start against ACC competition (his first was against Georgia, however, three weeks ago.)

Sunday: RHP Jake Long (2-0, 4.06).  Long is a transfer from East Tennessee State, so, another pitcher UVA hasn't seen.  Does not sport a good K/BB ratio at 23/17.  Back trouble kept him out of the NC State series.  The next likely option as a replacement is lefty Zack Erwin (2-2, 4.58).  Either way, Clemson's Sunday pitching has a very tough time matching up with Friday and Saturday.

Bullpen: Will be thinned out considerably if the injuries keep Gossett and Long out again, and Schmidt and Erwin are forced to start.  Matt Campbell (2-0, 0.45) is an outstanding senior closer who's allowed only one earned run in 20 innings.  Righty Drew Moyer (1-0, 3.26), a 6'4" freshman, is the only other reasonably dependable option, but opposing hitters are batting .303 against him.  Clay Bates (0-1, 5.71) has been rather hittable, though he was better last year.  That's about the extent of useful pitchers.  There are no left-handed options out of the pen unless Erwin doesn't start, or unless Clemson decides to give the extremely hittable Alex Bostic a spin.  (Unlikely, as he was given one start this season and promptly blown off the hill - by Western Carolina.  That was an interesting game.  Bostic got a 1-2-3 first and then walked three and allowed two hits in the second, and all five of his runners scored.  Clemson lost, 18-10.)

Bottom line: This weekend matches up the league's top ERA (that'd be us) against the league's top batting average (that'd be them.)  Clemson has a good solid lineup from top to bottom, particularly now that they've excised the guys who can't see the Mendoza Line with binoculars.  This'll be one of, if not the, stiffest tests yet for our pitchers.

However, the Tigers have been inconsistent as well, and fielding - especially up the middle at second and short - has failed them miserably at times.  The pitching depth is suspect.  Crownover should give Nate Kirby a tough battle, and Gossett has handcuffed the Hoos twice, but we don't know if he'll pitch.  Clemson's more than talented enough to take two of three from UVA, but are at risk of being swept if they can't win with Crownover on Friday and if Gossett can't go.  The bullpen desperately needs the presence of Schmidt and Erwin; otherwise, should UVA knock a starting pitcher out of the box early, that game could turn into a Cavalanche in short order.

Prediction: 50% chance of a 2-1 UVA series win, with 25% each of Clemson taking two or UVA getting the sweep.  Let's cut it right down the middle and say we get the win but no sweep; I have a hunch Leggett is using injuries as half an excuse not to just come out and tell us Gossett will pitch, so Clemson should be able to force Sunday to be a rubber match.  By then, though, they'll have used up their useful pitching depth; Clemson's only won one Sunday game all year against teams you'd consider any good.

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