Even after losing season, Clemson coach Monte Lee encouraged by team’s future

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It’s been almost a month since Clemson’s season ended.

For the first time since 1959, the Clemson baseball team ended the season with a losing record (25-27) and ended an 11-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances. Instead of dwelling on it, though, the Tigers will attempt to move on and make sure it never happens again.

“It’s like an open wound,” Tigers coach Monte Lee said. “When you have an open wound, you put a bandage on it and you get busy trying to take care of what you need to take care of, which is recruiting, which is the incoming group that we have for next year. A lot of things to be excited about in the future of the program, and we’ve got to let that wound heal.”

Using Lee’s analogy, Caden Grice could be considered one of the ointments used to heal the wound. The freshman All-American is a solid piece who should continue to develop in various facets for the Tigers. In his collegiate debut, the left-handed pitcher/first baseman was the second-best hitter with a .317 batting average, while posting team-highs in home runs (15), RBI (53), runs scored (40) and on-base percentage (.427).

With injuries plaguing Clemson’s pitching group, Grice also saw time on the mound, throwing 10 innings, giving up 10 hits with 14 strikeouts and a 7.20 ERA.

“Caden Grice is one of the most dangerous hitters in the country,” Lee said. “We also have to make sure we do everything we can to utilize him in both roles as a hitter, a middle of the order hitter, but also develop him as a starting pitcher. That’s going to be our main focus for Caden moving forward going into next year. We have an incredibly valuable piece in our program, and we need to utilize him to the best of our ability.”

Using the summer

Before heading out for the summer, Lee’s final charge to his team wasn’t about the team, per se. The sixth-year head coach encouraged each player to use the next couple of months to make individual improvements. Some like Blake Wright and Max Wagner have chosen to do that through summer baseball.

“As I checked a couple days ago, they’re hitting .370 and .380 in wood bat leagues this summer,” Lee said. “We feel like those two guys have tremendous makeup and also the ability to play at a high level. We return guys like Jonathan French, who’s up in the Cape Cod League.”

While some are playing summer ball, others are getting ready for the MLB Draft. That doesn’t just apply to current players like James Parker, the team’s top hitter, Adam Hackenberg and Davis Sharpe, but to some incoming guys, as well. Class of 2021 graduates Bubba Chandler and Will Taylor, who signed on to both Clemson’s football and baseball programs, are expected to be first-round draft picks. Taylor has reportedly already arrived at Clemson but still has the option of leaving via the draft. Chandler hasn’t publicly made a decision yet.

Lee didn’t give details but said he’s spoken with both athletes and their families and was scheduled to speak with one of them on Monday, but didn’t say which.

With the MLB cutting 42 minor league teams, however, it lessens the likelihood of playing right away for future draftees.

“It could be a while before those guys go out and play and quite frankly, you come to Clemson, you’re going to be able to compete during that time period,” Lee said. “We feel like it’s a great situation for guys to come to school and return to school, but ultimately, you start throwing dollars and cents in there and the opportunity to sign, they have to weigh a lot of different situations when it comes to that.”

Getting back on track

Once decisions have been made, however, Lee is confident his team will have what it takes to get back on track in the wins and losses column.

Getting back Nick Hoffman, who posted one of the team’s best records at 4-1, will help bolster the returning pitching staff. Geoffrey Gilbert will also be a key piece coming out of the bullpen. The redshirt freshman lefty had three saves and a Tigers-best 2.23 ERA in 44.1 innings on the mound.

Offensively, the Tigers must improve on closing out games — nine of their 27 losses came by one run — in addition to driving in runs and situational hitting.

That’s the extent to which Clemson will focus on what happened during the 2020 season. Dwelling too much on the past creates tension and the Tigers don’t need any stumbling blocks before they even get started. The squad has its first team meeting on Aug. 18 and plan to come in with a fresh slate.

“We’ve got to understand that, look, just go out and play and compete and make sure that you trust your training,” Lee said. “We’ve got to get back to those basics, but we’ve also got to move forward, and I think that’s going to be the biggest message come August 18 is that we’re moving forward.”

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