Baseball Is Back

Jan. 28, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

While incredibly close Friday, it was impossible not to notice how extremely loud it is is when somebody really gets hold of a ball.

As the, “Ping!, Ping!, Ping!,” returned for real at Georgia Tech, one couldn’t miss making this and a few other observations from behind the hitting turtle at Russ Chandler Stadium as the Yellow Jackets embarked upon official practice No. 1.

Baseball is back, and there’s this:

Daniel Palka is enormous, particularly from the sternum up and through his arms, and he and Brandon Thomas bombed a few balls in batting practice. Thomas is moving from right field this season to left, and Palka stands a pretty good chance of backfilling right.

They’re distinctly different in these ways: Thomas’ game is built around speed, although he hit a ball to left field that cleared even the newly-raised netting out there, and Palka… well, think Palooka.

I mean that in a good way, Daniel. Please believe me.

With arms that twin my legs, shoulders upon which one might land an R/C plan, and bat speed to send breeze all the way to the dugout, he sent a ball to right field that hit a light pole two-thirds of the way up.

That saved somebody’s windshield.

BP is one thing, though, and games are another.

With 14 sophomores back from last year’s whopping class of 17 freshmen, the Jackets have quite a bit of experience.

Still, head coach Danny Hall has business to attend to before Tech opens the season Feb. 17 in a tournament at Winthrop University.

His team is ranked No. 10 nationally in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll, No. 9 by Collegiate baseball and No. 12 by Baseball America, but he seemed a bit more mindful of being picked to finish second in the ACC’s Coastal Division. That didn’t sit well.

The team picked ahead of the Jackets, North Carolina, sits at No. 4 nationally — for now. “It’s nice to be recognized,” the coach said. “We have work to do.”

Indeed.

Junior Buck Farmer, last season’s Sunday pitcher and a preseason All-America pick, is back to start on Fridays. With the departures of Mark Pope and Jed Bradley to professional baseball, sophomore Matthew Grimes will almost certainly move from the mid-week starter’s spot to Saturdays.

Then, hmmm. We’ll get into candidates down the road, after a few of the big weekend scrimmages upcoming, but keep an eye on Dusty Isaacs.

There are other issues to be resolved.

Sophomore Mott Hyde began last season at shortstop, but in short order switched places with second baseman Jacob Esch when fielding problems kept cropping up.

Hyde’s just about sure to start somewhere. Shortstop, however, is no guarantee. Junior Sam Dove, senior Connor Winn and others will be in the mix as well.

“[Hyde’s] got to play consistent. If it’s Mott, or Dove or Winn, or somebody else they got to play consistent,” Hall said. “We don’t expect them to be Nomar Garciaparra, but we do expect them to make the routine plays.”

There are still questions at third base (sophomores Chase Butler and Alex Cruz are among those under consideration), at backup catcher, and regarding how the bullpen will shake out although junior Luke Bard looks like the closer for sure.

Sophomore catcher Zane Evans, who went well beyond the call of duty as a freshman while starting 58 of 63 games behind the plate, is going to work some relief. How much will be determined not only by his work on the mound, but by the emergence of other catchers.

A.J. Murray of New Jersey is a candidate to address that situation, and fellow freshman Connor Lynch may factor.

Palka is going to get a shot to pitch some, and the same goes for first baseman/designated hitter Jake Davies. Cruz, too.

“We have more options this year,” Hall said. “I do think Zane’s going to help us in the bullpen. A lot will depend on how much those guys can help us catching because that is an important position.”

Freshman Charles Sheffield had a solid spring and will vie for time with Palka in right, and with Davies at first base.

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