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Freshmen; Gutsy Gage Inspire Miami Upset of Clemson

The trio of Daniel Cuvet, Antonio Jimenez, and Jake Kulikowski combined to drive in six runs and ace Gage Ziehl pitched 6 quality innings as 11 seeded Miami held on to stun the 2nd seeded Clemson Tigers 8-7 on Thursday to clinch a spot in the ACC Tournament Semi-Finals on Saturday. Miami, who's playing to continue their season as they have no hopes of an At-Large bid, are now 5-1 over the last two years in the ACC Tournament.

Miami got started right away with some nice two out hitting from Cuvet and Dorian Gonzalez Jr. Cuvet poked a single through the left side before Gonzalez doubled him in to make it 1-0 Hurricanes. For Clemson in the first two innings, they were able to create traffic, but ultimately only scored twice despite four of their first five hitters putting balls in play with exit velocities over 100 MPH. The Tigers took a 2-1 lead in the Top of the 2nd after Miami failed to double up a runner following a lineout. Freshman star Jarren Purify doubled with two outs to score Jimmy Obertop and Tristan Bissetta.

I was letting a couple things affect me in the first couple of innings," Ziehl said. "JD [Arteaga] pulled me to the back and we had a little conversation which helped me lock back in."

It wasn't Ziehl's most dynamic performance by any means, but his gritty performance with Miami's season on the line against a Top 5 opponent makes it arguably more impressive. The junior righty went 6 innings and only gave up 2 earned runs on 103 pitches. He left the game with his team leading 6-3 despite multiple defensive miscues and Clemson getting lead off men on in five of the six innings Ziehl pitched.

"[We] felt like we had him on the ropes there in the fourth, fifth, and sixth," said Clemson head coach Erik Bakich in the post game press conference. "But he found a way to put zeros up in those innings and was able to kind of settle it down in the middle innings. He's obviously one of the best guys in the conference."

It was clear Ziehl didn't have his best stuff on display but despite that, he was able to grind out another Quality Start-- his 11th in 15 starts this year. Clemson had many opportunities to put up a big inning, but Ziehl was able to dance away from danger time and time again.

"I liked our approach against him," Bakich continued. "I liked our execution, up until we had a chance to put an exclamation mark and get the big inning. We never got the big inning today because we got one or we got two, and then we were stranded."

Arteaga was effusive with the praise for the veteran hurler. "Even when he's not at his best, he's always going to give you a chance to win, and you're always going to get his best effort. Sometimes it's good enough, sometimes it's not, but you're always going to get his best effort.

"He was on the ropes there early, probably in the third inning. At one point we had our Saturday start warming up, and next thing you know you look up and he's gotten you through six innings and has shortened the game up for your bullpen."

If Ziehl was the pitching story of the game, then the talented trio of freshmen hitters were the offensive story. Much maligned shortstop Antonio Jimenez, who came into the game batting .172 on the year, went 2-3 and reached base three times. His day was highlighted by a three run blast in the second inning that gave Miami a 4-2 lead. It was just his second home run of the season. Fellow first year teammate Daniel Cuvet, who hit two home runs on Tuesday against Louisville, went 2-4 on the day with two RBIs. His double a few at bats after Jimenez's home run made it 6-2 early and put the exclamation mark on and emphatic five run second inning.

Freshman outfielder Jake Kulikowski, who didn't start and only had one plate appearance in the game, made perhaps the biggest difference thanks to his pinch hit solo home run in the bottom of the 8th that added crucial insurance heading to the 9th. Like Jimenez, Kulikowski has struggled at times this season and had come into the game hitting under .200 with just one home run. But the two showed up big when the team needed it most.

"There's a handful of guys that are starting to swing the bat (3:29) and really giving us a much better at-bats as of late, Arteaga said. "It's good to see them swing the bat and producing, even making productive outs when they do make outs. And that's the key to winning baseball games."

Despite Ziehl's performance and the freshmen players' timely hitting, it very nearly was another Clemson comeback. After Ziehl departed, Clemson was able to get one back in the 7th and two back in the 8th. They were threatening for more in that inning when Arteaga once again went to his bullpen. Myles Caba, who threw 60 pitches in Tuesday's win, came out with the tying and go ahead runs standing on second and third respectively. The sophomore southpaw was able to strand the runners and maintain the Miami lead heading to the 9th.

Following Kulikowski's solo shot in the 8th, Caba came back out for the 9th with a two run lead hoping to close out the game. But Clemson shortstop immediately put a dent in those hopes with a leadoff blast to dead center to make it 8-7. And later, with the tying run on base and with two outs in the 9th, Tigers outfielder Tristan Bissetta got a hold of a Caba pitch and sent it to deep left. It appeared destined for the seats.

"Off the bat, you know, that was...," Caba said with a deep breath. "...I thought it was going off the bat, to be honest." Miami left fielder Edgardo Villegas made a leaping catch to end the game, robbing Clemson of the lead and the chance to defend their ACC title.

"He put a good swing on it. Shout out to [Villegas] for kind of making me think I blew the game there," Caba said with a chuckle. "Then he proceeded to wave the finger up. My heart had dropped and then celebration afterwards. I have no words. I really have no words."

In a game that was a rematch of the 2023 ACC Tournament Championship game, Miami found a sort of revenge and are able to continue their season for at least one more game.

"It feels great," said Ziehl. "We lost to them last year in the tournament and our season's on the line every game, so we've got to come out and show up.

Miami will play the winner of Duke vs NC State on Saturday for a spot in the ACC Championship on Sunday.

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