OXFORD – The boldest pre-Oxford Regional move comes from Clemson coach Monte Lee, who announced Tuesday he would hold his hottest pitcher when the 3 seed Tigers take on 2 seed Illinois to open play Friday.
That leaves Clemson’s second round opponent – the Ole Miss-Jacksonville State winner – to face a left-hander who carried a perfect game into the eighth inning and a no-hitter into the ninth last week against Louisville.
Clemson eventually won the ACC Tournament game 7-1.
Saving his ace wasn’t something Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco really considered, and Will Ethridge (6-6, 2.94) will start against Jacksonville State.
“To me, unless you know something really specific I don’t know why you would do it. Obviously Will’s our ace, and we’ve run him out there, and I think we need that against a very good 4 seed. That’s the other factor. If you’re playing a 4 seed where you’re the overwhelming favorite I think sometimes you choose to maybe pitch off. What we’ve looked at, Jacksonville State, we’ve got our hands full in Game 1. We need to take care of that. When we get to Game 2 we’ll worry about that,” Bianco said.
Keenan should be ‘fine’
Bianco said he expects sophomore third baseman Tyler Keenan to be in good shape for the regional opener, though he indicated that Keenan is not at full strength in terms of throwing.
Keenan left the SEC Tournament championship game with a shoulder injury. A day before he left the semifinal game against Georgia for a heat-related issue.
An MRI on the shoulder has come back negative.
“The shoulder’s getting better. He’s throwing across the infield, not full speed yet, but in BP he looks terrific. He should be fine,” Bianco said.
Keenan had only two hits in six SEC Tournament games. That dropped his season batting average to .276, sixth on the team.
He leads Ole Miss in home runs with 13 and RBIs with 60.
He’s been hit by a pitch 13 times, second to Ryan Olenek’s 16.
Confidence in Hennessy
Lee said he has confidence in sending junior lefty Jacob Hennessy (4-1, 3.72) to oppose Illinois right-hander Ty Weber (4-2, 2.97).
Hennessy was Clemson’s Friday night starter in 2018 but has been a reliever most of this season. He didn’t make his first 2019 start until April 10 against Furman, his first ACC start against Duke on April 21.
“Jacob’s got to be at his best, and when Jacob’s at his best he’ll give us a chance to win the ballgame. Hopefully Jacob will establish the strike zone early, and we can play good defense behind him and find a way to score runs against a tough starter and a really good bullpen,” Lee said.
Illinois right-hander Garrett Acton leads the nation in saves with 19. He’s got a 2.23 ERA in 32 1/3 innings, and opponents are hitting just .121 against him.
Lee says early success against Hennessy is important for the Tigers.
“We need to be on the attack. He’s strike-thrower. He doesn’t give up a bunch of hits. He’s a guy that’s going to force you to put the ball in play. He’s got a lot of sink on his fastball,” Lee said.
Illinois is making the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last nine years, the best stretch in program history.
Illini coach Dan Hartleb has coached all four of those NCAA teams giving him as many NCAA trips as the school’s previous 42 years combined.
Illinois’ four NCAA trips are tied for the second in the Big 10 this decade. Nebraska also has four, and Indiana has six.
Illini’s best player
Outfielder Zac Taylor, a fifth-year senior, is second on the team with a .331 average. That’s a jump of almost a hundred points from hits .226 average last season.
Prior to this season Taylor’s best BA year was .266 as a freshman.
He leads the team in home runs with 10, 38 runs scored and 100 total bases.
Best Dressed Gamecocks
Jacksonville State was clearly the best-dressed team on practice day at Swayze Field.
Because NCAA regulations require a certain size number on practice apparel the Gamecocks wore their road whites with “Gamecocks” in script across the chest, read numbers on the back, red belts and red caps.
The Gamecocks, 37-21, went 22-8 in the OVC regular season then won the conference tournament.
They’re hitting .271 as a team and pitching with a 4.30 ERA.
Two batters are hitting better than 300.
Nic Gaddis leads the team with a .333 average, in home runs with 13 and in total bases with 127.
Bianco says if you could pick your 4 seed he wouldn’t have picked Jacksonville State.