Monte Lee is pushing the right buttons; Clemson is executing fundamentally at a higher level, and the Tigers’ confidence is way up.
That all could very well lead to hosting an NCAA regional next week, and that goal was helped greatly by a 5-4 win for sixth-seeded and 15th-ranked Clemson over third-seeded and eight-ranked Virginia in their first game of the ACC tournament Thursday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina.
“You look at the No. 1 RPI conference in the country, a team that’s third in wins in the league overall and you look at who we’ve beat down the stretch here, how we played our last 10-plus games, which is a big thing for the NCAA selection committee, I think there’s no question that we deserve to host,” Lee said.
Thursday, the Tigers (39-18) put together much of what’s led to a six-game winning streak and nine victories in their last 11 contests in their first postseason game ever under Lee, who gave Mike Triller his third start of the season. The little-used senior hit a two-run home run for a 3-1 lead in the fifth inning. Clemson manufactured the go-ahead run in the ninth playing small ball to perfection, and the Tigers held off one of the hottest teams in the country.
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“What a great win for us in Game 1 against the defending national champion. Virginia is a very well coached team, very talented team and we are just fortunate to find a way to win the game,” Lee said. “Had the lead early and they chipped away, which is what good teams do.”
The Tigers blew a 4-1 lead after five innings, and Pat Krall, the team’s best pitcher, gave up a solo home run in the eighth. In a tie game to start the ninth, the Tigers used fundamentals. Chris Williams reached on an infield single before Triller drew a walk. After a Virginia pitching change, Andrew Cox laid down a perfect bunt that moved both runners into scoring position, and Chase Pinder did the rest when he hit a ball to deep, RBI sac fly to center field, allowing Williams to score to make Clemson 1-0 in Pool B heading into Friday’s 11 a.m. showdown with second-seeded Louisville (47-10).
“My approach when I went up there was a little off, and then coach quickly got me thinking up the middle,” said Pinder, who went 1-for-3 and scored a run. “I got a good (fastball) pitch to hit and I was able to drive it.”
Wren product Eli White led Clemson at the plate by going 3-for-5 with an RBI while the Tigers got 5.2 innings out of starting pitcher Charlie Barnes, who allowed three runs on five hits in the no decision.
Krall (9-1) ended up getting the win after he worked around a single and an error that put a runner at second with one out in the ninth. He’ll remain in the bullpen the rest of the week, Lee said.
The Tigers totaled six hits with four of those and four runs coming off Virginia starter Connor Jones, a potential first-round draft pick. Clemson got to him in the second inning when Chris Okey drew a leadoff walk and scored on Weston Wilson’s one-out RBI double.
The Cavaliers tied the game in the bottom half when Daniel Pinero crushed a solo home run off the huge bull sign in right field.
Jones then retired the next nine Tigers before allowing a one-out walk in the fifth. Triller took advantage and hit his second career homer to right field to give Clemson the lead. Jones’ unraveling continued as he walked another batter, was called for a balk and threw a wild pitch to set up White’s RBI double that put the Tigers up 4-1.
The Cavaliers (36-19)would get two runs off Barnes in the sixth on a pair of RBI sac flies by Pinero and Adam Haseley, and they tied the game 4-all in the eighth when Matt Thaiss parked Krall’s second pitch of his outing into the right-field seats, but it wasn’t enough for a Virginia squad that came into the game winners in 11 of its last 12.
“I think the story of the game, really, was them capitalizing on our walks,” said Virginia coach Brian O’Connor. “Five of their runs were a result of initiated base on balls. A fourth run, the runner was advanced to second by a walk. It’s tough to win this time of the year doing that.”