ACC Notebook: CU, FSU AdvanceAt The Ballpark
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DURHAM, N.C. — The ACC tournament’s pool play format has plenty of detractors, including a number of ACC head coaches. Sure, it can be anti-climactic, resulting in games that don’t have any bearing on whether or not teams advance to the championship game (like Saturday night’s Louisville-Virginia game). But almost every game has at least some significance for NCAA tournament positioning (including that late game, as Virginia was trying to avoid an 0-3 showing in pool play to give its regional hosting chances a boost). And the tournament has never lacked for drama.
Certainly it’s not as frantic as the grueling double-elimination format used by the SEC and most other conferences, there are still plenty of breathless moments, as there were in the first two games Friday. Both games were exciting 5-4 affairs that were decided by ninth-inning scoring, and both games resulted in a team clinching a trip to Sunday’s title game. Clemson trailed by three runs after six innings in the first game but stormed back to beat Wake Forest. And in the second game, Miami and Florida State played a characteristically intense, back-and-forth affair that featured a Miami comeback to tie the game in the top of the ninth, followed by a Florida State walk-off hit in the bottom of the frame.
That set up a fascinating Clemson-Florida State matchup Sunday morning at 10 a.m. (the time was moved up due to the threat of rain in the afternoon). Both teams have really boosted their stock this week, and the winner Sunday has a chance to grab a national seed — although Clemson might have the upper hand either way. The Tigers (No. 6) are ahead of the Seminoles (No. 12) in the RPI, own better records against the top 50 (18-14 compared with 15-13) and top 100 (26-17 vs. 22-14), and won the head-to-head series in the regular season. But Florida State had the better regular-season conference record (16-10 vs. 16-14) and nonconference strength of schedule ranking (No. 54 vs. No. 115). A conference tournament title would be a nice feather in Florida State’s cap, and maybe it could tip the scales in FSU’s favor.
But the smart money is probably on Clemson to land the national seed regardless of Sunday’s outcome. Clemson’s detractors point to its 16-14 ACC record in the regular season, but the committee considers conference tourney games as part of a team’s overall conference record, so Clemson is 19-14 against ACC foes (and this week’s quality wins this week against Louisville, Virginia and Wake really helped). Winning Sunday to get to 20 ACC victories including a conference tourney crown would make Clemson an even stronger candidate.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from Saturday’s action.
• The long ball has been a key part of Clemson’s arsenal all season long, and home run production helped carry the Tigers through pool play. Heading into Saturday, Clemson led the ACC with 62 homers, and it got two more big ones in the win against Wake Forest — a solo shot by Mike Triller in the seventh to cut Wake’s lead to 4-2, followed later that inning by a two-run shot by Chad Pinder that tied the game. Triller, a fifth-year senior who just recently found his way into the lineup, had just four hits all season heading into this week. But he started all three games in the ACC tournament and hit two big home runs and a double off the Blue Monster.
“It’s going to be sad when we leave this ballpark,” Triller said. “There’s got to be a magnet or something out there that’s just drawing the ball over there.”
Triller’s emergence is emblematic of Clemson’s own rise. Sure, the Tigers have a few stars — Seth Beer, Chris Okey and bullpen stopper Pat Krall — but this team’s greatest asset is its toughness and togetherness. Credit first-year coach Monte Lee with fostering an incredibly successful team culture.
“You know, we don’t care about stats. We don’t care about our own personal success,” Lee said. “It all boils down to: What can I do to help this team win today? Can I impact the game on defense? Can I impact the game on the bases, on the mound, at the plate, get a bunt down, move a runner, batter with two strikes, wear a pitch? Whatever it takes, and that’s what kind of players we’ve got.
“We’re a blue-collar oriented club. We’re a tough club. It just boils down to whatever is it going to take for me to win a ballgame. That’s what our guys do.”
The Tigers eventually scored the winning run on a wild pitch in the ninth, and Krall, the funky lefthander with the rubber arm, closed out the victory, like always. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but what a weapon Pat Krall is.
• The player of the day in Durham was Florida State sophomore first baseman Dylan Busby, who went 4-for-5 with a homer (his second of the week), a double, a single high off the Blue Monster, and the walk-off RBI single in the ninth. After striking out in his first at-bat against Miami lefthander Michael Mediavilla, Busby stayed on Mediavilla’s excellent changeup for his homer to center and his double off the left-field wall in his next two at-bats. It was quite a reversal from last week, when Busby went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in a game that Mediavilla started.
“I watched a lot of video today actually on the starter, and found some things that not everyone would see, but you pick it up,” Busby said. “I mean, if your mental approach is right, it would work. So I went out and watched that video and went into today’s game knowing I’m better than he is. You get that mindset, and it worked out, and I’m happy it did.”
Don’t under-estimate the value of that mindset. During Busby’s at-bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, I heard FSU coach Mike Martin call out to Busby, “Let the game come to you. You’re in charge.”
Busby took charge of the at-bat and pulled a Devin Meyer fastball through the drawn-in infield for the walk-off hit, then sprinted around the infield trying to get away from the mob of Seminoles chasing him. They eventually caught him around second base, which became an impromptu mosh pit.
“I was actually kind of scared,” Busby said of his mad dash from his teammates. “But then I was like, whatever, it’s fun. It was awesome. Want to do it every day.”
Of course, this being a Florida State-Miami rivalry game, there had to be a little postgame extra-curricular chirping, right? Miami outfielder Jacob Heyward had words with some Florida State players as he headed from the outfield toward the Miami dugout, but order was restored quickly.
“Of course there’s a rivalry between us, but we expect their best and they are going to expect our best every game. It’s always going to be high-intensity performance by both teams,” Mediavilla said. “This is what college baseball is all about, just playing this type of rivalry game. They are a great ballclub and they just came up big today.”
• Of course, Miami didn’t make it easy. The Hurricanes are a very tough team to put away in the late innings, because they have a ton of experience and confidence in tight spots — and they’re just plain good. FSU lefthander Tyler Holton kept the dangerous Miami offense at bay for seven excellent innings, striking out a career-high nine batters, and FSU carried a 4-2 lead into the ninth. FSU closer Tyler Warmoth couldn’t find the strike zone, loading the bases with a hit batsman and two walks. Thursday’s hero, Edgar Michelangeli, delivered again Saturday for Miami with a two-run single to tie the game, but FSU relievers Chase Haney and Alec Byrd stranded runners at the corners to give the Seminoles a chance to win in the ninth.
It’s worth noting that Miami coach Jim Morris used closer Bryan Garcia for two-thirds of an inning in the eighth, down two runs, but opted not to bring him back out for the ninth in a tie game because he did not want to overuse his closer. The Hurricanes are a mortal lock for a national seed and a strong contender for the No. 1 national seed, and they kept their eyes on the prize.
“I did not want to burn our bullpen. I wanted to get him rested and I wanted to get him ready for the next tournament,” Morris said. “Not that this tournament is not important; next weekend is more important, and that’s the reason we did what we did.”
• Wake Forest finished the tournament 2-2, making the Deacs 15-19 against ACC opponents this year. With a No. 26 RPI and some nice series wins, that should be enough to get Wake into a regional for the first time since 2007. And the Deacs have a chance to make some real noise in a regional, because their talented offense has really found its stride, and their pitching has coalesced nicely. Wake flexed its offensive muscle in Friday’s 10-9 win against Virginia, and it gave both Louisville and Clemson runs for their money until both rallied.
“Hopefully we’re fortunate and we’ve given the committee enough reason to put us in,” Wake coach Tom Walter said. “I think we’re playing our best baseball right now. We’re certainly healthy right now, which is a big part of it.”