May 30, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
With a tip of the journalistic cap to Dave Anderson, the esteemed New York Times columnist emeritus who first wrote these words about the Milwaukee Braves nearly a half-century ago…
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets died with their boots.
That’s boots, as in errors. That’s errors, as in five of ’em: Four fielding errors, one throwing error. Three E’s in the third inning, two more in the fifth. All five leading to six unearned Southern Mississippi runs in the Golden Eagles’ 10-7 victory Saturday night in the NCAA Atlanta Regional at Russ Chandler Stadium.
It was Tech’s first five-error game all season, and it left the Jackets in a precarious position. Not on life support, but in the ICU and hardly in the prime position they’d seemingly fashioned with Friday’s small ball/long ball 9-3 win over Georgia State.
In this double-elimination format, Tech (36-18-1) had 11-game winner Deck McGuire, Friday’s winner, ready and relatively rested for a Monday night game if necessary. But now the Jackets must oust once-beaten Elon, a 4-3 winner over Georgia State Saturday, at 3 p.m. Sunday, then beat Southern Miss (37-23) Sunday night to keep hope, and Omaha, alive.
“Definitely not our best effort,” Tech coach Danny Hall said of his club’s defensive gaffes. “Baseball’s a game of momentum and I felt like we got off to a good start. I honestly think their pitcher [starter J.R. Ballinger] was a hitter away from being pulled out of the game. In the third inning, we had the bases loaded and one out and he proceeded to get a strikeout and then got the next guy out. And I think that totally changed his momentum.”
Two Tech runs were already in, with just one out and Derek Dietrich due up. But the shortstop, who was dropped to seventh in the order after his average had plunged 30 points to an even .300 before singling in his first Saturday at-bat, struck out badly. Chris House then grounded into a forceout.
In the bottom half? The bottom began to fall out for Tech. Especially for Connor Winn. The freshman, the fourth – or is it the fifth? – second baseman Hall has used this season, had jump-started Tech’s decisive five-run fifth inning Friday with a leadoff bunt single against Georgia State. But Winn made his sixth start of the season Saturday primarily for his glove, not his bat. He hadn’t committed an error all season.
On Saturday, he made three, two in Southern Miss’s three-run third. On the first, Winn, with a runner on first, tried to field a high-chopper in the early-evening glare and muffed it. The second, a throwing error to first on a potential double-play ball, enabled Southern Miss to take a 4-3 lead it never relinquished.
Winn’s third E came in the fifth inning, when the Golden Eagles broke it open with four more runs to lead 8-3. In both the third and fifth innings, third baseman Matt Skole also had a costly error. Six of the eight runs allowed by Tech starter Brandon Cumpton were unearned. Only twice all season had the Jackets made as many as four errors in a game.
Saturday’s five miscues weren’t E’s for excellence. “Well, he’s just got to pick his head up,” Hall said of Winn. “I’ve watched the guy for nine months and he’s a great defensive infielder, and he just didn’t have a good night.
“It can happen to anybody,” he said, “and I’m sad that it happened to him because he’s worked hard and I know that nobody feels worse than him. We were hoping that Cumpton could pick him up, and I think that he was close a couple of times. But give them credit, they capitalized every time we made a mistake.”
Of Winn’s first error in the third inning, Hall said, “It actually hit him in his glove. Second base can be a little bit tough because of the sun going down, and I don’t know if he lost the ball in the sun. I really don’t think he did. I just think the ball had a lot of topspin and it just bounced out of his glove, and then he couldn’t find it.
“It ended up being a double-mistake,” said the coach, “because I honestly think if he catches the ball we might turn a double-play. But instead, he can’t find it; and if he just finds it, he gets an out and at least we’ve gotten an out on the play. It was a tough ball to miss.”
In the Southern Miss fifth, a hard-hit ball bounced off the bottom of Winn’s glove and rolled into right field, allowing the runner on first to reach third and batter Kameron Brunty to advance to second on the two-base error. In the stands, a Tech fan in the crowd of 2,381 cried out in frustration, “Keep your glove down!”
And your head up. Tech rallied for four runs in the ninth (the last two on Luke Murton’s 19th home run of the season), but with a cushion padded by B.A. Vollmuth’s two-run homer in the seventh, Southern Miss survived and advanced to await the winner of Tech-Elon. This, after having capitalized on Tech’s miscues.
“We did,” said Golden Eagles’ coach Corky Palmer. “Georgia Tech made some mistakes, and it probably opened the gap. But he had to get some big hits, which we did after they made the mistakes. We got some big hits, and that’s usually what happens in college baseball. A walk and an error, it doesn’t matter. Things happen. It’s hard to get away from that. That’s what hurt them.”
What hurt the Milwaukee Braves in the 1959 National League playoff that Dave Anderson covered was the errors of their ways. Milwaukee, which had won the previous two NL pennants, booted themselves right out of the post-season. In both games of the best-of-3 series, the Braves were dismal defensively. Especially in Game 2. Especially Felix Mantilla, whose 12th-inning throwing error gave the Dodgers a 6-5 victory and their first NL pennant in Los Angeles after having abandoned Brooklyn two years earlier.
Mantilla’s position? Second base.