Friedlander: Clemson and Miami advance to ACC baseball final, but the risk of playing wasn't worth the reward
Clemson and Miami advanced to the ACC baseball tournament championship game with victories on Saturday.
The real winner was Mother Nature.
Give credit to the ACC for doing everything it could to get its semifinals in around an ominous forecast of persistent rain throughout the day.
Faced with a tight scheduling window that left no margin for error, conference officials decided to play both games simultaneously at separate sites in hopes of outrunning the weather.
But that didn’t stop the show from going on.
Despite adverse conditions that turned the infield dirt into a mud bog and made the pitcher’s mounds at both Durham Bulls Athletic Park and Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill slipperier than a hockey rink despite the best efforts of the respective grounds crews, the ACC got what it wanted.
The games were played and the final matchup is set.
It’s easy to understand why the conference went to such great lengths to avoid a cancellation.
Because the NCAA requires all automatic bids to be submitted by the end of the day Sunday in advance of its tournament bracket announcement at noon on Monday, there would have been no way to finish the tournament had the semifinal games not go on as scheduled.
That would have meant Wake Forest, as the highest remaining seed, would have been declared the champion.
Presenting the trophy in a default ceremony would have been a bad look for a league already dealing with a massive image problem.
It would have brought back memories of then-commissioner John Swofford handing over the hardware to Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton in front of a dozen or so people in a nearly empty Greensboro Coliseum after the ACC’s 2020 men’s basketball tournament was abandoned because of COVID.
As disappointing as it was, safety took precedence that day. This time, the opposite was the case.
The risk of playing Saturday’s semifinals in such treacherous conditions simply wasn’t worth the reward.
Only by sheer good fortune did all 4 of the participating teams make it through the day without anyone getting seriously hurt.
As important as the conference championship might be, Clemson, Miami, Wake Forest and UNC all have their sights set on a much bigger prize looming on the horizon.
The top-ranked Deacons and hard-charging Tigers are both assured of top-8 NCAA seeds that make them favorites to advance to the College World Series. The Hurricanes are also a serious threat to get to Omaha.
Imagine the consequences if Clemson’s Caden Grice would have pulled a hamstring on one of the occasions in which his back foot slipped as he pushed off the rubber while pitching? Or if Miami star YoYo Morales would have lost his footing and sprained an ankle while sloshing around the bases on his inside the park homer?
Wet banana… pic.twitter.com/6hObbaPlvr
— Bossman (@deaconboss) May 27, 2023
Thankfully, the only injury of significance was sustained by Clemson’s Cooper Ingle, who had to leave his team’s 10-4 rout of North Carolina after fouling a ball off his knee.
The Tigers were already in complete control by then. With the 1-2 punch of Grice and Billy Amick providing most of the firepower, they hit the Tar Heels with 5 runs in the bottom of the 1st and rolled to their 14th straight win.
Miami proved to be even better mudders in its 7-2 upset of Wake. It scored 4 times over the final 3 innings, punctuated by the inside-the-parker that was Morales’ 2nd homer of the day, to break open a close game and ensure that the tournament’s No. 1 seed went home empty handed again.
It’s been a full decade since the ACC’s regular season champion has also won the tournament, dating back to UNC’s victory in 2013.
While Saturday’s less-than-perfect conditions didn’t directly impact the outcome of either game since everyone was faced with the same challenges and disadvantages, they did have at least some effect.
Wake coach Tom Walter, for instance, changed his pitching plans for fear that the game might be delayed once it got started.
Knowing that he needed to get Sean Sullivan some work after missing the past 3 weeks with an injury, he went with the lefty to start the game instead of Josh Hartle, as scheduled. Things didn’t go well for either pitcher, particularly Hartle, who gave up 4 runs on 7 hits in 4⅓ innings.
“I hated to take Josh Hartle out of that start and get him out of rhythm, but the weather forecast didn’t look good and I would never forgive myself if Sean Sullivan didn’t pitch,” Walter said afterward. “We flipped those in case we got pulled off the field early. It disrupted the routine of the whole day. No. 1 priority was getting ready for next weekend.”
Clemson and Miami have the same priorities. Which is why they’re likely to face similar decisions if the weather doesn’t improve by Sunday.
Although the forecast is slightly more optimistic, there’s still a high chance of rain. It’s a probability that presents the ACC with the most important decision of all.
To play or not to play, that is the question.
The answer is to err on the side of caution. Rather than putting 2 of its best teams in harm’s way right before the most important games of the year as it did with the 4 in Saturday’s semifinals, the league should pull the plug, award the championship trophy to Clemson as the highest remaining seed and pay tribute to the real champion for 2023.