Friedlander: Erik Bakich's vision already coming into focus for Clemson baseball
DURHAM, N.C. – Erik Bakich didn’t hold anything back upon his hiring as Clemson’s baseball coach last summer.
At his introductory press conference, he promised to lead the Tigers “back to prominence, competing for ACC championships, trips to Omaha and our 1st national championship.”
It was a lofty goal, especially for a program that had gone 2 straight years without an NCAA Tournament bid.
But Bakich is already delivering.
He and his red hot team checked off the 1st of his goals by not just competing for an ACC championship, but by bringing one home in their 1st try.
Clemson completed a methodical run through the conference tournament, beating the rain and Miami in a 11-5 victory at Durham Bulls Athletic Park that clinched its 1st title 2016 and league-record 11th overall.
It was as improbable an accomplishment as can possibly be for a team that hasn’t lost in more than a month.
While Bakich insists that he saw the Tigers’ championship potential as far back as practice last fall, few others had the same vision when they stumbled out of the gate with only 2 wins in their 1st 10 ACC games and stood at a middling 17-14 overall back in early April.
Fortunately, his players were among the believers.
“Transitions are never easy and it could have been easy for them to lose the buy-in or decide they want to change something up or do something different,” Bakich said. “This team, to the players’ credit, did not deviate. They did not buckle.
“They knew we were better than what we were showing and they went out and did it. There was no secret sauce, no magic pill. It was just dirty hard work.”
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) May 28, 2023
There was also no light switch moment that turned things around.
Despite the losses, Bakich kept telling his players that they were getting close. That the payoff to their work was right around the corner.
As it turned out, they reached the pivotal intersection at the end of a home sweep at the hands of Wake Forest – a team that went on to win the ACC’s regular season championship and will likely be the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA reveals its tournament bracket on Monday.
The Tigers may have lost all 3 games. But the last 2 were by a single run. They then dropped the 1st game of the next weekend’s series against Florida State before finally getting over the hump.
Once the snowball got rolling, it didn’t take long for it to hit mach speed.
And it hasn’t stopped since.
Neither rain nor fog nor the gloom of a frontal system that stalled over central North Carolina during the past 2 days was able to cool off the nation’s hottest team.
Sunday’s victory was Clemson’s 16th straight, the longest active winning streak among Power 5 teams. As eye popping as the results have been, the most impressive thing about them is the way they’ve come about.
Whether they jump on their opponent like they did in a 5-run 1st inning in Saturday’s semifinal rout of North Carolina or wait until they get behind before exploding for 8 runs in the bottom of the 7th in Sunday’s championship clincher against Miami, there’s almost an air of invincibility about the Tigers the way they’re playing right now.
We’ve just got a bunch of good guys, a bunch of dogs 1 through 9,” junior Caden Grice said after completing a Shohei Otani-like performance by hitting .368 with 2 homers and 9 RBI while also pitching 7 strong innings Saturday to earn a victory in a driving rainstorm. “There’s no quit in anybody. Not in the bunker, not in the lineup. It’s super special what we have. It’s exciting.”
Grice was the overwhelming choice as the tournament’s MVP. But had it not been for his pitching mastery, the award could easily have gone to any number of his teammates.
DH Billy Amick, ACC freshman of the Year Cam Cannarella and catcher Cooper Ingle, despite being hobbled after fouling a ball off his knee, all made significant contributions during the week.
Sunday, the man of the hour was 2nd baseman Riley Bertram.
A graduate transfer who came to Clemson from Michigan as a package deal with Bakich, he picked an opportune time to hit his 1st home run as a Tiger. His 3-run shot into the right field bleachers was the big hit of the big 7th-inning rally and proved to be the coup de grace that put the Hurricanes away.
Riley Bertram’s first home run in a Clemson uniform gives the Tigers the lead in the ACC Championship Game. College baseball is radpic.twitter.com/ldV2WkzJ2W
— Stephen Schoch (@bigdonkey47) May 28, 2023
Bertram was a member of the Wolverines team Bakich took all the way to the championship series of the College World Series in 2019. That experience helped him gain a faith and trust in his coach that he passed along to his new teammates, who promptly elected him a captain.
They’d already accomplished something special together. Now they’ve got a new story to tell.
“This team will be talked about to so many future generations of Clemson Tigers,” Bakich said. “Anytime you hit a rough patch, anytime you have a rough start or have some adversity, we’re going to talk about what (this) team did.”
The way they’ve been going, they might be only just beginning.
Featured photo courtesy of the ACC