CLEMSON, SC - When Garrett Boulware sets goals, he prefers to go "over the top" to make sure he doesn't sell himself short, but the Clemson catcher admits he would have had a hard time envisioning just how well his season has gone.
After hitting .214 with two RBIs in 28 games as a freshman, Boulware opened 2013 batting ninth in the Tigers' lineup as he started five of the first seven games behind the plate, though perhaps not completely entrenched as the full-time starter.
"I was fully aware I was in the nine-spot," he said. "I didn't know how I was going to do this year. I just wanted to show the team I could play and fit in with the team."
Suffice it to say, he's done that.
After his two-run, first-inning home run helped Clemson open the second half of its regular-season schedule with a 4-1 win over Gardner-Webb on Wednesday night, Boulware had as many home runs (five) as the rest of the team combined.
Through 29 games, the sophomore also led the Tigers in batting average (.357), hits (35), RBIs (27), total bases (57), slugging (.582) and on-base percentage (.417), and had struck out only 12 times all season, fewer than any other regular starter.
"I knew I had it in me; I just wasn't sure if it was going to happen," he said. "I wanted to do good, I worked to do good, I prayed to do good, and it's just working out right now. Hopefully I can keep it up."
After never batting higher than the nine-hole through the Tigers' first seven games, he batted eighth in the eighth game of the season and then moved up to sixth for the next five contests.
But after going four-for-five with two home runs and five RBIs in the Tigers' 12th game - a 10-5 win at NC State on March 8 - he made his first appearance in the cleanup spot two days later in the series finale with the Wolfpack.
Boulware remained a stalwart in the cleanup hole for 14 straight games until batting third April 1 against North Carolina with Steve Wilkerson out with an injury, and he hit third again Wednesday, putting the Tigers ahead to stay with his two-run bomb.
Considering he's been producing on this pace for better than half a season, it seems safe to presume Boulware's production is an indicator of the player he actually is and not a player riding an extended hot streak.
"Hopefully this sticks with me for the next couple years," he said. "I'd really like to feel comfortable and feel like the player that I can be and not be second-guessing myself the whole time. So I hope it's not a hot streak. I don't think it is."
Before coming to Clemson, he was ranked the No. 141 player in the nation and No. 5 player in South Carolina by Perfect Game, as Boulware hit .533 with nine home runs, 27 RBIs and 21 walks in limited at-bats as a senior at T.L. Hanna High School.
Those numbers were rewarded by being drafted in the 42nd round of the 2011 MLB draft by the San Diego Padres, but Boulware said he felt honoring his commitment to Clemson was the right thing to do - plus there was the fact he had grown up a lifelong Tiger fan.
"My whole life," he said. "My mom went here, my family is from Anderson, so I didn't really see myself anywhere else."
Boulware played in 28 games as a freshman in 2012, starting 17 of them - 16 in left field and one behind the plate - but hit just .214 with two RBIs. He started to show signs of his 2013 form, however, by going six-for-18 (.333) with two doubles and a .429 on-base percentage in his last 11 games.
"It definitely wasn't the best year here," Boulware said, "but it was a good year in the sense that I learned a lot. Playing behind Spencer Kieboom, he's a great catcher, and he can teach you a lot, teach you how to play the game, little things you don't really see. So from a catching perspective I learned a lot."
He learned so much, in fact, that it would be hard to argue he's been anything other than the best everyday player on the team. The good news for the Tigers - a fact that might have hardly seemed worth pointing out this time last year - is Boulware won't be eligible for Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft until next year.
Any player at a four-year college who turns 21 within 45 days of the MLB draft, also known as the Rule 4 Draft, is eligible to be selected, but Boulware turns 21 on Sept. 9, 2013 - 64 days after this year's draft begins June 6.
Still, Boulware said he has a long way to go before he is ready to leave Clemson.
"There are definitely some improvements that need to be made," he said. "Spencer helped me out a lot and I've seen myself grow a lot as a catcher in the last year, but there are definitely some more things to improve if I want to make a career of this."
The way he's improved from last season to this one, it would seem unwise to wager against Boulware doing just that one day.
Before he does, however, Boulware has plenty of lofty goals left to achieve in college.
"I want to be the best catcher in the ACC - that's my goal - and just try to go from there," he said. "You don't always meet your goals, but you've got to set them high if you're going to achieve what you want."