Sept. 30, 2013
By Jon Cooper
In baseball, the first game of a series matters, regardless of the length of the series. It matters a great deal.
It’s the reason there’s a statistic for a team’s record when winning the first game of a series.
During the 2013 season, Georgia Tech went 9-2-1 in weekend series in which they won the first game. They were 0-4 in weekend series where they lost the opener.
It’s why the first game of a series, like the White-Gold World Series, which begins today at Russ Chandler Stadium (first pitch is at 3:45), is not “just another game.” The starters for each side in Game One — they had yet to be announced at press time — certainly aren’t treating it such.
Junior right-hander Josh Heddinger hopes he’ll be one of those two starters and made a very compelling case with the way he pitched down the stretch and in the NCAA Tournament as well as over the summer.
“The first game is a tone-setter,” said Heddinger, who is 5-4 with a 6.13 ERA in 38 appearances (12 starts) in two seasons with the Jackets. “The first inning is so important. So my first thought is, ‘Make a statement and get through this inning. That will give me confidence.”
As a sophomore, during the NCAA Regional, he battled through a difficult first inning against host Vanderbilt, which went into the game ranked No. 2 in the country, then baffled them over the final eight, pitching a complete-game, two-hit shutout, keeping Georgia Tech alive.
Then, over the summer, he again came up big in the postseason for the Peninsula Pilots — make that the Coastal Plain League Champion Peninsula Pilots.
In Game One of the final series against the Columbia Blowfish, Heddinger threw 5 2/3 innings, allowing one unearned run on five hits, striking out six and walking three. He left with a 3-1 lead. Even though the Pilots needed 10 innings to win the game, 5-4 and he would get no decision, as the bullpen let a 4-1 lead get away — he set the tone. Peninsula would complete the sweep a couple of days later in the next game.
Bringing that confidence to pitch in a big game is something Heddinger will try to do in 2014 as he builds on the 2013 season.
The 6-4, 215-pound right-hander from Suwannee, got better and better as the season wore on. He was 3-0 with a 4.60 ERA overall, but the majority of the damage against him came in a pair of games against Georgia, during which he allowed 11 runs in 8 1/3 innings. He allowed 12 runs total in his other 12 appearances, covering 36 2/3 innings (a 2.94 ERA), and allowing one-or-fewer runs in all nine other relief appearances.
In his 12 appearances after March 1 on, Heddinger pitched to a 3.86 ERA (16 ER in 37 1/3 innings), and allowed one-or-fewer runs in 11 of 13 appearances. Take away the two games against Georgia, his ERA was a slim 1.54 (five ER in 29 1/3 innings).
Heddinger saved his best appearance for last, as on June 2, with the season on the line and a hostile crowd against him, he rained all over the Commodores’ anticipated Regional victory parade, throwing a dominating two-hit shutout.
He still remembers the moment head coach Danny Hall told him he would be the man standing on hill holding the fate of the team’s season in his hands. For Heddinger there was even more at stake.
“I remember Coach Hall comes in and tells me I’m going to start and that I’m going to go as far as I can and then he’ll hand the ball to somebody else,” Heddinger said. “I remember that speech like it was yesterday because of the magnitude of the game. It was win or go home on the biggest stage I’ve ever been on.”
Heddinger rode the momentum from that start into the summer, where he went 3-1 with a 3.19 ERA (13 earned runs in 36 2/3 innings) for Peninsula, allowing 31 hits, striking out 34 while walking 15 and holding batters to a .223 batting average). In the playoffs, he pitched to a 1.50 ERA (two earned runs in 12 innings), allowing 10 hits, striking out seven while walking four and holding batters to a .227 average.
Having seen where Heddinger has been and how his stock is rising, Hall is excited to see where he can go in 2014.
“We’re certainly going to count on him to be one of our key pitchers this year,” Hall said. “He’s a guy that has become more confident in his ability and more confident in his pitching. We’re really excited to see him this fall and fully expect him to continue progressing.
“I think it all started with his victory over Vanderbilt in the Regional to give us a chance to play for the Regional Championship,” he added. “I think that gave him a lot of confidence. Peninsula used him in some different roles. He started some, he relieved some, but the key for me was when they had the one game in the playoffs to stay in it. He started that game and they were able to win that game.”
Heddinger has shown he can start and relieve roles and is confident he’ll do the job regardless of which job Coach Hall offers…but he knows where he’d prefer to be.
“Obviously, I’m going to go out and fight for a weekend job,” he said. “There are a lot of good guys going up for it but in the end, Coach Hall chooses. We fight for it but he chooses who deserves Friday, Saturday, Sunday and who goes to the bullpen. Whatever happens, I have to adjust and go with it, but my goal is to get a weekend job. That’s what I want.”
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