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Clemson baseball prepares for a new era ahead of opening day

Max Knipstein // Contributor

Clemson baseball head coach Erik Bakich is introduced by Clemson athletic director Graham Neff

As the Clemson Tigers’ baseball team gears up for opening day in a few weeks, it will do so with many new faces across both the roster and coaching staff. 

Leading the Tigers will be first-year head coach Erik Bakich, who previously served as the head coach at Michigan for the last 10 years and led the Wolverines to the College World Series championship series in 2019.

Bakich, who served as a volunteer assistant coach at Clemson in 2002, will also be bringing in a new coaching staff of his own, comprised of Nick Schnabel, Jimmy Belanger and Griffin Mazur.

Bakich and his staff will be tasked with filling quite a few holes in the lineup, primarily due to the departures of 2022 ACC Player of the Year, Max Wagner, and starting pitcher Mack Anglin.

While Wagner’s departure to the MLB is a blow to the program, the Tigers should be able to replicate some of his production by committee. 

One of the prominent players is returning catcher and designated hitter Cooper Ingle, who started in 54 games during the 2022 season, hitting .351 with 44 RBIs. 

“He’s an ideal candidate for a top-of-the-order type of hitter just because of his ability to get on base and see a lot of pitches,” Bakich said of Ingle.

Infielder Blake Wright also burst onto the scene last year, hitting .349 in 44 games and adding 11 home runs. Meanwhile, junior first baseman, pitcher and outfielder Caden Grice started in all 58 games last season and tallied 12 home runs. At the same time, graduate infielder Benjamin Blackwell is another reliable bat returning to the lineup, as he hit .327 while starting in all 58 games. 

Clemson will also return with a healthy Will Taylor, who missed all but 13 games (all starts) in his freshman season with a torn ACL. Taylor has been a popular name on the national scene since he came out of high school, and Bakich believes he will play an integral part in this year’s team. 

“What I’ve seen out of him so far is that he is one of the most explosive athletes I’ve seen in a baseball uniform,” Bakich said of Taylor. “His ability to go from here to there and get to full speed and accelerate quickly is elite.”

The loss of Anglin on the mound is more complicated for Bakich and company to replace, as sophomore Billy Barlow is the only returning pitcher who started more than 10 games last season. Bakich may potentially turn toward true freshman Tristan Smith to play a big role in Clemson’s pitching staff this season.

The 6-foot-2 left-hander was ranked as the No. 24 prospect by Perfect Game and has already received high praise from his coach. 

“If you were to tell me that Tristan Smith will be a weekend starter at the end of the season, I would say, ‘Yeah, I can see that because his stuff is very good,’” Bakich said. “…There’s no question, he’s got a huge upside and a very high ceiling, maybe as high as anyone on the team, if not higher.”

Apart from Wagner and Anglin, Clemson also lost several transfers in the offseason, including pitcher Ricky Williams, outfielder Dylan Brewer and catcher Jonathan French. All three played a significant role with last year’s team. 

Brewer and French started in 39 and 37 games, respectively, while Williams appeared in nine games, starting three of them. All three followed former Clemson head coach Monte Lee and transferred to in-state rival South Carolina. 

Despite the loss of these key players, the Tigers were able to add to their roster through recruits and transfers. Clemson signed two transfers from Michigan in right-handed pitcher Willie Weiss and infielder Riley Bertram. 

In three seasons at Michigan, Weiss pitched in 67 appearances, struck out 120 batters and was a third-team All-Big Ten selection in 2021. Bertram, on the other hand, played four seasons at Michigan, hitting .264 with 30 doubles in 129 games. 

Both Weiss and Bertram were a part of Michigan’s 2019 runner-up team under Bakich and will provide Clemson with experience and leadership.

The Tigers were also able to sign the No. 14 recruiting class in Perfect Game’s rankings, with certain players already on Bakich’s radar as day-one contributors. Headlined by Smith, Bakich also believes players like infielder Cameron Cannarella and catcher Jacob Jarrell can see significant action this season. 

“Cam Cannarella comes to mind first because of the fall that he had,” Bakich said when asked which freshmen are ready to contribute. “From a performance standpoint, he really stood out offensively this fall.” 

Bakich added that Jarrell is someone who fans could “see a lot of early on.” 

Looking at the schedule for Clemson, this season will certainly present many challenges for the Tigers. 

The team is currently set to play series against six ranked opponents, including No. 6 Wake Forest and No. 12 North Carolina. Clemson will also match up with No. 23 South Carolina for a three-game series starting on March 3. 

The Tigers will start ACC conference play on March 17 with a three-game home series against Duke. 

As for the out-of-conference games, Clemson will open the season on Saturday, Feb. 17, against Binghamton at Doug Kingsmore Stadium at 4 p.m. EST. 

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