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Baseball America weekend preview

3/3/2006

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

There's a lot of familiarity for Jack Leggett this year.

His Clemson Tigers are ranked No. 1, a spot in which they spent seven weeks during the 2002 season -- the last time they advanced to the College World Series. The batting order features eight of the same names it did a year ago, when Clemson went 43-23 and fell one game shy of the CWS, and most of the pitching staff returns as well.

And there's also that other constant for Leggett: South Carolina. Clemson faces its in-state rival this weekend, with a road game Saturday and a home game Sunday.

A Friday night game at College of Charleston comes first for Clemson, but it's apparent how much the next two games mean, as Leggett plans on holding all three of his weekend starters back for the two games against the Gamecocks and going with a midweek arm in Charleston.


There's no middle ground in the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry. Unlike a lot of other rivalries in college sports where the fans are more into the antics than those actually participating in the games, the tension between the coaching staffs and players in this series is palpable.

"Oh yeah, there's no doubt about that," Leggett said. "It's a big game for everybody. It's definitely a rivalry; you can sugarcoat it any way you want, but it's a game that's important to everybody. You just want to play well.
"There's a lot of fanfare about it. I'm not sure there's a bigger in-state rivalry around. You'd have to show me one. I know there's some others than claim to be, but when you sell out both places and people can't get tickets …"

This weekend's series is important enough that Leggett doesn't hesitate when asked if two of his recent injury holdouts will return to the lineup. Sophomore second baseman Taylor Harbin, limited to one at-bat because of a balky hamstring, and sophomore right-hander David Kopp, who has been resting a sore shoulder, both will take the field this weekend.

Harbin's presence could prove most important. He's Clemson's top right-handed hitter, and was the only righty among the first six batters in the Tigers' Opening Day lineup. And that could prove important against a South Carolina team that will start lefties Arik Hempy (0-1, 0.00 ERA) and Forrest Beverly (3-0, 3.38).

Clemson's two lowest offensive outputs of the season have come against lefties: A 3-0 win against James Madison and starter Greg Nesbitt, and a 3-2 loss to Mercer and Shawn Barrett. The Tigers did tag Mercer lefty Hunter Abercrombie for eight runs and 10 hits in a 9-4 win, so the left-leaning lineup isn't completely neutralized by the matchup.

"We've got to beat right-handed and left-handed pitchers to win," Leggett said. "Everybody's got good pitchers on each side. Our kids can hit left-handed pitching pretty good. We ran into a really good kid and Mercer team, but that second left-hander we knocked around pretty good. Left or right, it doesn't make so much difference. He's got to be a pretty good lefty to get at us. Harbin coming back gives us one more good right-handed hitter against lefties, and before it's all over we'll be better against them."

It's mostly nitpicking to point out other flaws in Leggett's team at this point. By his estimation, the club has played very well in 53 of its 54 innings this year -- a throwing error that sparked a three-run Mercer rally was the Tigers only loss serving as the one ugly inning.

Even with that blip, the pitching staff has allowed 10 runs all year, five of which were unearned. "I just feel good about everybody who's gone out there to pitch," Leggett said. And junior right-handers Jason Berken and Stephen Faris -- the starters against South Carolina -- haven't allowed any runs in more than 20 combined innings.

Those are reasons for the one unfamiliar thing Leggett has to do deal with: Clemson's record. The Tigers are off to a 5-1 start, much better than the 9-10 and 6-8 beginnings to the last two seasons. Clemson lost both games of its early home-and-home series with South Carolina both of those years before rallying to grab the two midweek games that fall later in the spring.

Then again, the results don't have as much effect on the coach as one might think.

"People ask me, 'How do you sleep?' I don't sleep," he said. "If we lose, I can't get away from what could have been different. What could we have done better? If we win, I can't wait to get to ballpark to play again. I'm ready to go at 2 in the morning. You get greedy.
"I'd rather battle that than losing and getting no sleep."