An Improbable Hero

May 28, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn

Sting Daily

– There are ALWAYS good back stories to prop up a great, big, unexpected tale like that of Georgia Tech winning the ACC baseball championship. As the Yellow Jackets were beating Miami 8-5 Sunday, one of the best was the grinning Didricks.

Barry and Diane made the trip from the Rome, Ga., area to Greensboro, N.C., knowing that their son, senior outfielder Jarrett, might not wear a Tech uniform after this week, and not knowing if he would even play. Their trip was rare; jobs rarely allow them to travel, and their boy hadn’t played much for the Jackets anyway.

Guess who pitched the Jackets to their eighth ACC title Sunday?

See what I’m saying?

“My parents came, and my girlfriend; it was her first time,” Didrick said from the bus as the Jackets rolled merrily toward Atlanta late Sunday afternoon after tilting the Atlantic Coast Conference on its ear. “My parents both have pretty busy work schedules. They usually can’t come, but they took time off.”

Safe to say it was worth the trip for all fans of the olde gold and white.

Tech was terrible this season against its own standard. The Jackets were 12-18 in conference play, the first time since 1985 they were sub-.500, and only on the very last day of the regular season with a win over Miami did Tech even qualify to be one of the eight teams in the ACC tournament.

In Greensboro, Tech put together a four-game roll so unlikely that if conference coaches were handed a script of it prior to Wednesday some might’ve laughed. It all started, after all, with a game against the No. 1-ranked team in the land, Florida State.

Danny Hall would’ve said something out of the side of his mouth. “Oh, nobody would have believed it,” the Tech coach said. “They’d have wondered what you had been smoking.”

The Jackets were hot enough to leave vapor.

They outscored No. 1 Florida State, No. 17 Virginia, Clemson and No. 21 Miami by a combined 35-15, got four home runs, 11 RBI and one whale of a career-best start on the mound Saturday from first baseman Jake Davies, two three-inning saves from would-be infielder Alex Cruz, and two more from catcher Zane Evans – who didn’t pitch last year.

Chalk some up to chemistry, superstition, good fortune and tournament MVP Davies.

“We’ve just had a great group of guys. I’m a senior and I’ve never seen a group of guys so close,” Didrick said. “Everybody is playing their best baseball. I got up at 7:17 every day, ate the same breakfast, some of the guys are growing out mustaches.”

Hall made sure strength and conditioning coach Steve Tamborra taped up the lineup in the dugout each day since it seemed to work as the Jackets upset the Seminoles on Wednesday.

There was no game Thursday, and on Friday Tech pounded the Cavs so badly (17-5) that the game was stopped by way of a rare mercy run rule. Virginia had not allowed so many runs in a game since 2001.

Against Clemson, Davies hit a two-run home run in the first for the lead, gave up a solo shot in the bottom of the frame, and then pitched a career-long six innings on the way to a 5-1 win. Prior to the last month of his senior season, he was only a spot reliever and then secondarily to his duties at first base and as a hitter.

Sunday, Josh Heddinger pitched the first two-plus innings and left with a 6-3 lead. Didrick replaced him in a troublesome third, and threw the next four in the longest stint of his college career. “I knew I had to eat up innings,” Didrick said. “I just tried to throw strikes and let them hit it to our defense. I just wanted to get to Zane.”

Evans did more than his share. Didrick left after the sixth inning with with a 6-5 lead, and Evans’ two-run single in the top of the seventh pushed the Tech lead to 8-5. Then, Evans pitched three scoreless, hitless innings without walking a batter to end it.

Somebody had to bridge the gap between Heddinger and Evans.

Didrick (2-0) was your man. Four innings, two hits, two runs, win garnered.

The Jackets were seeded No. 8 in Greensboro, which is to say the opposite of the pole position, a spot from which no ACC team had ever won it all.

Didrick was seeded even lower.

Two of Tech’s top four starting pitchers at the beginning of the season were long ago lost to injury, confidence was fleeting, and, well, it was just miserable.

Then, something(s) happened.

The Didricks’ boy was a fabulous player at Calhoun High, contributing mightily to one state title team and to another that was a state runner-up. He put up huge numbers as an outfielder, pitched well also, and became a summer player of considerable repute.

Times were tougher at Tech but only in a way, not completely as you’ll soon read.

Various literature lists Didrick as an outfielder who has never started a game, and played in only a few. He had no pitching statistics until recently.

Jarrett Didrick, though, has quite a story.

“There’s no question about it,” Hall said. “I kind of got emotional in the press conference talking about him. Here’s a guy who came in as an outfielder, never really got much chance to play, kind of convinced me that he could help pitching, a bit of a side-armer.

“Didn’t get much of an opportunity last year, and this year out of necessity we throw him in and he does really well. He’s been a big part of some of our wins. On top of that, he has been a Dean’s List student at Georgia Tech. He had to wait until he was a senior, and he gobbled up four innings for us today.”

There are several stories worth telling. Cruz, a backup infielder last year as a freshman, basically was told that if he wanted to play he’d better figure out how to pitch. He’s become the bedrock of the bullpen. Evans battled injury early in the season, yet has become a closer.

You had to know something special was going to happen in Greensboro when former Tech greats Jay Payton and Nomar Garciaparra turned up to do a little broadcasting.

Sure enough, and Didrick, Davies, Cruz and Evans had plenty of help making it happen.

Take Thomas Smith, the Tech second baseman who made the all-tournament team.

“For 30 games, I told him I was going to red-shirt him, and then just decided to play him,” Hall said. “I just felt like our team was missing energy, a spark. He could really catch the baseball and we were playing bad defense at the time. He plays the game the right way, always gets his uniform dirty, does a lot of the little things well.

“We started playing him, and in 30 games he hasn’t come out of the lineup since. For a freshman walk-on to do that, and make the tournament team . . . I couldn’t be more proud of a group than I am of this team. We played good baseball, had a great week, played our best baseball.”

[ITALICS Help me here. I’m trying to think of similar accomplishments by Tech athletic teams, examples of over-achieving. Surely, there are some examples relating to men’s basketball back in the 1980s, right? Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com. Gonna fire up the Twitter handle soon, too, @mwinkeljohn.

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