LOUISVILLE, KY- When you watched Clemson starting pitcher Jacob Hennessy throw on Friday night in Louisville, there weren’t any outward signs of dominance, at least not any that you stereotypically associate with dominating performances from pitchers.
He’s already not someone with high-octane stuff, and on this day, he wasn’t piling up strikeouts or creating any highlight reel-worthy moments with punch outs on knee-buckling breaking balls. There wasn’t even any wild gesticulation or pacing purposefully around the mound, some of the superficial stuff you see with some pitchers looking to exude confidence and bravado.
Instead, Hennessy just quietly controlled the game and led the Tigers to a 3-1 win over the Louisville Cardinals..
Things did get off to a bit of a shaky start, however. In the first, he allowed a leadoff bloop double to Josh Stowers, who was then quickly moved to third on a Jake Snider groundout. But then Hennessy struck out Devin Mann and got Danny Oriente to ground out to end the frame. In the second, Louisville got a run on a single, sac bunt, single, and sac fly, which made it 2-1 after Clemson plated two unearned runs in the top half of the second.
He was pushed a little bit in a couple of other innings, like in the fourth, when Louisville put two men on with one out, and in the fifth, when the Cardinals had two guys on with two outs, but including the final out of the fifth inning, an Oriente flyout to end that threat, he retired the final eight batters he faced before being lifted with one out in the eighth after a strikeout of Jake Snider. He really appeared to be getting stronger as the game went on.
“Hennessy’s got three pitches that he’ll throw in the strike zone, and usually, one time through the order, we start to get a feel for what’s working for him and what’s not,” Clemson head coach Monte Lee said. “Andrew (See), our pitching coach, does a really good job of adjusting to their lineup and adjusting to the strength of our pitcher. I thought we threw more fastballs the second and third time through the order. He did a great job of just pounding the strike zone and getting weak contact.”
If we’re being honest, even in those innings where Louisville put men in scoring position, it just felt like Hennessy was in complete control. When it was all said and done, he’d thrown 7.1 innings, giving up five hits and one run with two walks and six strikeouts, and with only a couple of exceptions, Louisville never really hit him all that hard. The only extra-base hit for the Cardinals was the bloop double for Stowers to lead off the first, and perhaps the best-hit ball of the day was an out in the third inning, when Stowers tagged a fly ball to deep left-center field, where it was tracked down by Drew Wharton after it had been knocked down by the cold, heavy air.
For Lee, Hennessy’s consistency stands out and allows him to dominate without dominating stuff.
“He’s just the same guy every time,” Lee said. “He gets beat in the strike zone. Bottom line. When he gets hit, when he’s not quite at his best, he gets hit in the strike zone. He never beats himself. You have to beat Hennessy. That’s just what he does. If we play good defense behind him and he can keep the ball down in the zone enough to get some ground balls, he’s going to make you swing the bat to beat him, he’s not going to beat himself via the free pass. He gives you a chance every Friday night because of that.”
Clemson came into the season with question marks on their pitching staff, as they graduated or lost to pro baseball their entire starting rotation from a year ago. To this point, however, the completely rebuilt rotation has more than held their own, with Hennessy leading the way.
With Friday’s outing, he’s now sporting a 2.27 ERA with a 36/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .218 opponent batting average in 35.2 innings of work. Joined by Brooks Crawford (2.86 ERA) and Jake Higginbotham (3.29 ERA), the Hennessy-led rotation has actually been able to do some heavy lifting and perhaps play a more active role than anticipated, given that the offense, with an even .250 team batting average, still seems to be finding their footing to a certain degree.
“I’m ecstatic,” Lee said of his feelings toward what he has gotten from the rotation. “Sitting where we’re at, 22 games into the season, I couldn’t be happier with our starting pitching and what they’ve been able to give us, but we’ve also been able to develop some guys out of the bullpen, because typically our starters are giving us five innings, sometimes six innings, but we feel like one of our strengths is our bullpen. We’ve got a lot of strike throwers in the ‘pen, guys that can match up lefty/righty out of the bullpen, and they’ve done an outstanding job. Overall, our pitching staff has been phenomenal.”
With a physical offense returning, led by the likes Seth Beer, Chris Williams, and Logan Davidson, and the questions about how they would replace so much production in the starting rotation, you might not have anticipated Clemson would be winning games with their pitching at this stage of the season against opponents the quality of Louisville, but led by Jacob Hennessy, that’s precisely what they’re doing.