#STINGDAILY: Winning In Earnest

June 3, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

This makes two years in a row that Georgia Tech has fashioned a Hollywood-esque script in the baseball postseason. It’s not so much that the Yellow Jackets escape danger, but laugh at it.

All Tech (37-26) did Sunday in Nashville was eliminate Illinois 6-3 from the NCAA tournament with a four-run ninth inning (after a painful eighth), and then watch Josh Heddinger throw a two-hit, 5-0 shutout against No. 1/No. 2 Vanderbilt (53-10) at Vandy when Tech was without injured starters Daniel Palka and Sam Dove.

Heddinger, a sophomore spot starter from Buford, pitched the first two-hit, complete game shutout for Tech since Cory Vance did it in 2000 against N.C. State. Vance, by the way, went into the Tech Hall of Fame last fall.

There were other dramatic themes, which we’ll get to, but really, this is not much different than last spring. Just about this time in 2012, Tech was the eighth and final team to qualify for the ACC tournament, and went on a four-game blitz to win it.

For the ninth straight year, Tech is in an NCAA regional championship series, and with a win today the Jackets can move to a Super Regional against Louisville for a berth in the College World Series.

“I knew if we lost, we would be done but I just couldn’t think about that,” Heddinger (3-0) said after thinking about it and then pitching an epic. “I think my changeup kept them off balance.”

The Jackets are good at keeping folks off balance.

Tech beat Vanderbilt 5-0 without junior rightfielder Palka – a Louisville Slugger All-American who was lost to an eighth inning collision with centerfielder Brandon Thomas, which resulted in an inside-the-park home run for Illinois that gave the Illini a 3-2 lead – and Dove, who pulled a hamstring in the first game.

And catcher Zane Evans – also a Louisville Slugger All-American – was relegated to offense only in both games.

No matter. Junior Mitch Earnest, a walk-on, caught both games, moved runners with a huge hit-and-run in the ninth inning of the first game, and hit a two-run homer in the second.

This is, apparently, what the Jackets do this time of year.

“We knew that our backs were against the wall, that if we didn’t win we’d be back in Atlanta [Sunday night],” Earnest said. “You have jitters, but after the first pitch it goes away . . . We’re all excited. We all feel really great right now.”

Well, they should.

To summarize: since dropping the regional opener to Illinois, the Jackets have beaten East Tennessee State ace Kerry Doane, who led the nation in complete games (12), was No. 2 in wins (13-1) and had a 1.99 ERA; then the Jackets won in the ninth vs. Illinois, which was 29-0 when leading after eight, and then beat the nation’s No. 1 team at home.

Not bad.

Heddinger could not have picked a better time to throw a complete game.

Neither Palka or Evans, who combined to form the bulk of the Jackets’ late-game bullpen over the latter third of the season, were available to pitch. Evans (2-2) pitched the final three innings against Illinois and picked up the win, and Palka was in triage.

Yet after the Jackets battled back to tie the Illini, they emerged.

It was a stomach turner.

Tech could only watch helplessly after overcoming a 2-0 deficit to tie the first game when Palka and Thomas collided on a fly in the eighth inning.

Commodore Jordan Parr raced around the bases for a tie-breaking home run.

Tech trailed 3-2.

“It looked like maybe we had let it slip away on a miscommunication on the fly ball to right that turned into an inside-the-park homer,” said coach Danny Hall.

Tech rallied with four runs in the top of the ninth to win. The Jackets had some fortune.

Earnest, a walk-on who was behind the plate because Hall wanted to save Evans’ legs for pitching purposes, failed to get down a bunt. When Hall put on a hit-and-run, Earnest moved a runner over in the big inning. Evans came up big, too, with an RBI single.

“I saw the first baseman crashing really hard, and second baseman crashing to first,” Earnest said. “I gave a fake [bunt], and just tried to get it in play, and was lucky enough to get it in play to first.”

The Jackets are now 4-23 when trailing after eight with the Illinois win. Clearly, they have a sense of timing. Three of those wins have come in the last three weeks.

Evans, who did not catch an inning in either game Sunday, pitched the final three innings to pick up the win. He also went 3-for-5 with two RBI in that one.

Freshman Jonathan King pitched the first six innings, allowing two runs.

This is the way it was in last spring’s ACC tournament, when all kinds of players were in unusual positions and excelled.

Tech will have to beat Vanderbilt again today (7 p.m.) to win this thing.

It will almost certainly be a pitching-by-committee deal because Tech has already used all of its starters – Dusty Isaacs, Buck Farmer, Cole Pitts, King and Heddinger.

There is this, though: Farmer, one of the top pitchers in the nation, is available. Isaacs and perhaps Pitts, too.

Farmer threw six innings Saturday when the Jackets beat ETSU, and he did not come back out after a rain delay in the sixth. He threw a modest 58 pitches.

Should Palka not be able to play (his replacement in right field, sophomore Daniel Spingola, had a hit and an RBI in the second game), that’ll be a blow. Palka is 7-for-13 in the Nashville regional, and 18-for-39 (.462) in his 11-game NCAA postseason career.

But the Jackets have had double-digit hits in all four games of the regional so far.

Left fielder Kyle Wren, who drove in the tying run in the first game and scored the go-ahead run before replicating his two-hit performance in the second game, thinks Sunday’s results can spark more of the same.

“I think it can,” he said. “We started swinging the bats at the end of the [first] game.”

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