Friedlander: Thanks to the power of positive thinking, red-hot Clemson has forgotten how to lose
DURHAM, N.C. – If ever there was a baseball game the Clemson could afford to have lost, this was it.
Because of the ACC Tournament’s pool play format, Wednesday’s matchup against Virginia Tech had no bearing on the Tigers’ chances of advancing to the semifinals this weekend. That will be decided on Friday when they take on Boston College.
But the way coach Erik Bakich’s red-hot team is going these days, it’s almost as if it’s forgotten how to lose.
Its 11-5 victory at Durham Bulls Athletic Park was its 13th straight. That’s the longest active streak among Power 5 teams.
But it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the roll the Tigers are on. Since losing their series opener against Florida State on April 6, they’ve reeled off 23 wins in 26 games – including 19 of 21 against ACC competition – to put themselves in line for a top-8 NCAA Tournament seeding.
It’s a heater Bakich and his players attribute to the power of positive thinking.
And not just since they started winning.
The belief in themselves and their ability to become a championship-caliber team was already in place even after a 2-8 start in the conference that had Clemson at the bottom of the standings looking up at everyone else in the Atlantic Division.
“The players should get all the credit, because they’re the ones that stayed positive,” said Bakich, who joined the Tigers this season after a successful run at Michigan that included a trip to the College World Series in 2019.
“It would have been very easy for them to become discouraged when we were 16-14 and 2-8 in the league, wondering if all this training they’ve been doing was really worth it. But they stuck with it and we started to catch a few breaks.”
Bakich, who started his coaching career as an assistant at Clemson in 2002, meant that in the figurative sense.
But in the case of Wednesday’s tournament win, it also held true literally.
Trailing 5-3 in the top of the 6th, the Tigers got a gift when some miscommunication on the part of 2 Tech fielders led to an error that allowed the tying runs to score on a routine popup that should have been the inning’s 3rd out.
It was the kind of mistake bad teams are prone to making. But Clemson took advantage of it the way good teams usually do.
“We’re a really tough team and we believe we’re never out of the fight,” cleanup hitter Caden Grice said. “We just keep on grinding, pitch after pitch. We don’t look ahead, we don’t look behind us, we just keep going.”
The next batter after the error, ACC Freshman of the Year Cam Cannarella, drove home the go-ahead run with a single on the 12th pitch of an epic battle with Hokies starter Drue Hackenberg.
Then after loading the bases on a bunt single and a hit batsman, Grice – who also happens to be the team’s most effective starting pitcher – broke the game open with a school-record 3rd grand slam of the season.
GRICE. GRAND. SLAM.
📺 @accnetwork | @ClemsonBaseball | 🏆 pic.twitter.com/SU2MkCxolH
— ACC Baseball (@ACCBaseball) May 25, 2023
The laser shot over the right centerfield wall seemed almost inevitable once Grice ran the count to 3-1 against reliever Andrew Sentlinger. And the Tigers’ bats kept on roaring from there, displaying a killer instinct directly attributable to the team’s early struggles.
“When we were staring at a season going nowhere fast and seeing what the other side looked like, there’s also a high level of gratitude for the fact that we are playing well,” Bakich said. “Had we not got dragged through the mud early, we wouldn’t be as tough as we are now.”
It also helped that Bakich and his staff stumbled onto a catalyst that kickstarted an offense that, in contrast the arsenal of heavy hitters that fuel fellow ACC frontrunners Wake Forest and Virginia, does most of its damage 1 single at a time.
Billy Amick got his chance to play only after regular first baseman Chad Fairey was hit by a pitch and had to come out of a game against Presbyterian on March 8. He got a hit that day and followed that up with a game-winning walk-off grand slam to beat Georgia State 2 games later.
It took 2 more weeks before he finally cracked the starting lineup. But now Bakich can’t write a lineup without him in it.
Amick had 3 more hits on Wednesday to raise his batting average to .432, a mark that would lead the ACC if he had enough at bats to qualify.
His emergence might not have been the catalyst that helped the Tigers begin their transformation from cellar dweller to legitimate championship contender. Both in this tournament and the one that will follow starting next week.
But it was certainly a contributing factor.
That and the power of positive thinking.
ACC Photo by Jaylynn Nash