Feb. 18, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
With the goal of forgetting where they left off and burning the map that led them there, Georgia Tech will resume baseball this weekend without a few familiar names vs. Purdue, Western Michigan and VCU at Russ Chandler Stadium.
Good thing the dugout is stocked with newcomers because, like never before, head coach Danny Hall and the Yellow Jackets are looking for a fresh start.
A.J. Murray, Daniel Spingola and Thomas Smith are gone, yet a loaded freshmen class joins seven position players with significant starting experience to scratch out 2015, when Tech lost its last five games and 11 of its final 19 to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years.
The Jackets are more familiar with being ranked No. 21 nationally by the College Baseball Newspaper than they were while dazed down last season’s stretch.
Senior third baseman Matt Gonzalez is not taking the ranking lightly, nor heavily. The two-time All-ACC native of Acworth simply wants to start playing again, the sooner the better to begin a purge. He’ll get first crack, starting vs. Purdue.
“Being ranked 21st doesn’t mean anything after that first game,” said Gonzalez, who is Tech’s returning leader in doubles (13) and RBI (42) from last year. “I think it gave us a little bit of a chip on our shoulders how we ended last year. We’re a little more hungry this year.”
Murray won’t be there to DH or catch when the Jackets take on Purdue at 4.
Tech’s leader in home runs (15), RBI (51) and runs (49) is in the Twins’ organization now, drafted in the 14th round last June. Spingola left center field to join the Cubs, and former first baseman Smith is finishing his degree.
There are serious candidates to back fill, and Tech’s 14 freshmen are most likely to factor at designated hitter, catcher and especially from the pitcher’s mound.
Jonathan Hughes, a right-hander fresh from Flowery Branch High, will start Sunday vs. VCU rather than begin a pro career. He was drafted in the second round by the Orioles, but chose the Jackets.
“I think it’s real important to set a tone early,” said junior left-hander Jonathan King, who’ll start Saturday vs. Western after holding down the Friday spot last season, when he went 4-5 with a 3.82 ERA. “We struggled last year, especially late…we were ready to go after last year ended; it left a sour taste in our mouths.”
Hughes isn’t the only freshman who’ll play.
Look for right-hander right-hander Keyton Gibson of Buford, who was tabbed second-team All-America last season by Louisville Slugger. Designated hitter/outfielder Brandt Stallings of King’s Ridge Christian was first-team All America, and designated hitter/infielder Tristin English of Pike County High was drafted in the 39th round by the Indians.
Gibson’s high school battery mate, catcher Joey Bart, was a 27th-round selection of the Rays and first-team All-America.
These young men already have made an impression.
Junior RHP Brandon Gold, who will make Tech’s opening-day start on the mound after posting a 7-3 record and 3.26 ERA last year on his was to third-team All-ACC honors, is excited by the new blood.
“It’s a really talented group of guys, two or three position players who are going to help a lot — that we need to help — and it’s good to have them,” said Gold. “Same thing in pitching. If anything, we have too many pitchers to select from, and coach Hall’s got huge decisions to make.”
The closer spot is solved.
Junior Zac Ryan last season was 9-1 with seven saves and a 3.59 ERA. He’s on several preseason watch lists, and a third team preseason All-American according to Louisville Slugger.
Leading hitters Ryan Puerifoy (.324) and Keenan Innis (.310) are back in the outfield, junior Connor Justus and sophomore Wade Bailey will give the Jackets a stingy combination up the middle at shortstop and second base, respectively, and sophomore Kel Johnson is going to be at first base or DH.
He missed 13 games last season with a serious ankle sprain and still was freshman All-America with 10 home runs and a .298 average (.314 in the ACC).
There will be mixing and matching in several spots, especially in the search for late-inning relief to set up Ryan.
“We do have a lot of guys to play positions, and we hope the first three weeks to get them a lot of at-bats and then just try to look at where our guys need to be and where they need to get in the order,” Hall said.
The search for spots may lead Gibson into a starting role, or not, and Hughes is already there.
King’s just glad to have them as Jackets.
“Absolutely; it’s more competition. A guy like Keyton Gibson or Jonathan Hughes, they’re going to make a big impact early,” said King, who allowed just four earned runs in a five-start stretch between April 17 and May 14. “They push us because they’ve done nothing but…throw really well in inner squad games.
“We were psyched that they got to come here. That was big that we convinced them to stay with us …they were highly ranked. We knew they were going to be good. I guess we didn’t realize how quickly they would be this good.”
Tech’s ranking is not pressure; it’s reflective of the expectations the Jackets had for themselves and the program when they came to Georgia Tech.
“You can’t be anxious. I think you’ve got to be more excited,” Gonzalez said. “If you’re anxious, you might play tight…Sure, there’s more talent, but the huge thing is there’s more depth.”