#STINGDAILY: Fall Forward

Sept. 11, 2013

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

This has been Danny Hall’s week.

The same probably could be said about Georgia Tech baseball head coach’s next five weeks, coinciding with the Yellow Jackets’ 2013 Fall Practice.

Things got off to a good start on Monday, as the Jackets kicked off practice under blue skies, golden sunshine and temperatures in the high 80s — real baseball weather.

“[Monday] was a good day and I think it’s supposed to be nice all week,” said Hall, who begins his 21st season as head coach on the Flats. “I think because we are very young position-player-wise, the younger guys bring a lot of energy and a lot of passion. So it’s always fun to be around those guys, see what they’re good at, see what we can help them with and then just get them used to the way we want to play and do things here at Georgia Tech. So, it is very exciting.”

Tech returns four starting position players and three pitchers from last year’s team that went 37-27 (15-15 in ACC play), then pushed host Vanderbilt, the nation’s second-ranked team to the limit in the NCAA Tournament Regional.

A lot has changed, as the Jackets saw six players move on to the pros in Friday-night starter Buck Farmer, left fielder Brandon Thomas, OF/3B Sam Dove, catcher/closer Zane Evans, first baseman/DH/OF/LHP Daniel Palka and center fielder and lead-off man Kyle Wren. Pitcher Matt Grimes also was drafted but chose to return for his senior year.

But the cupboard is far from bare. Tech returns key veterans in shortstop Mott Hyde, right-hander Dusty Isaacs, righty/3B Alex Cruz and catcher Mitch Earnest, all seniors, and RHPs Josh Heddinger, who threw a masterful complete-game shutout of Vandy in the Regional with Tech facing elimination, and Cole Pitts, infielders A.J. Murray and Thomas Smith and outfielder Daniel Spingola, all juniors and all back ready to lead.

“We’ve got quite a few seniors and I’ve seen all of those guys step up and take a leadership role,” Hall said. “One thing we have experience at is the pitching end and that’s a good place to have experience. I’ve been very impressed with the way our upperclassmen have kind of taken a lot of freshmen under their wings, just working with those guys to get them adjusted to school and to baseball.”

The sophomore class features a hungry group looking to make some noise, led by SS/3B Matt Gonzalez, runner-up at this summer’s 2013 TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby, and LHP Jonathan King, while the incoming freshman class of 16 comes in with a sterling reputation, as Perfect Game ranked the class No. 11 in the country.

The freshmen will use the fall to adjust to playing on the higher collegiate level. At least six members of the class know all about playing at a high level, as they were part of the 2013 Connie Mack World Series-winning East Cobb Yankees, the Yankees’ sixth Connie Mack title.

“I think winning breeds winning,” said Hall, who will begin the 2013 season with a career record of 1,062-519-1 (a .672 winning percentage), including an 854-402-1 mark in 20 seasons at Tech, a .680 winning percentage (he’s 329-197-1, .625 in ACC play). “One of the great things is the East Cobb Yankees and the East Cobb program. Those kids are used to playing at a high level, they’re used to winning. I think one of the reasons that we’ve been good here is we rely on the East Cobb Baseball program to feed us players.”

The Jackets open fall practice with a glut of pitchers, who under the watchful eye of second-year pitching coach Jason Howell will all get their opportunity to shine.

“Jason has done a tremendous job of staying in touch with these guys throughout the summer. We monitored a lot of the stuff they did this summer,” Hall said. “We adjusted to not only the older guys but the incoming guys in terms of making sure they got some rest before they started throwing again here this fall. Jason’s very involved in their daily schedule, weekly schedule, monthly schedule and we don’t really ask a lot of those guys in the fall. Probably the most that somebody might throw in an intersquad game might be three or four innings. It’s more just getting them in a routine.

“Obviously we want to see them throw in some intersquad games to see how they do so we can evaluate them,” he added. “[Howell’s] probably adding different pitches and trying to make adjustments for some of them mechanically, but we don’t try to over-work them at all in the fall.”

The team will work out four times a week, culminating in the annual White-Gold World Series, which begins at Russ Chandler Stadium on Oct. 1 (first pitch is at 3:15 p.m.). This year’s series been extended to a best-of-seven format up from the previous three-game series.

“We have a lot of pitchers so we’ve got enough guys that we can kind of space it out,” Hall said. “It’s a pretty hotly contested series and so to get our guys to compete at a high level in more games I think gives us a better feel for what our whole team can do. I just felt like it was the right thing to do. We’ll see if we like it but I just think it will make for more competitive intersquad games.”

Until then, there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of ground to cover. Hall is optimistic they’ll get there and, as always, will enjoy the journey.

“It’s good to see everybody out there running around,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young position players. So just trying to get them into the routine of practice and transitioning into college baseball, will take some time but I think the effort is great and there is definitely some talent there. Now we’ve got to mold them into our system.”

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