March 20, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Up Next: No. 18 North Carolina (12-8, 3-3) Friday, 7 p.m., Saturday, 4 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m.
Connor Justus learned a lot of lessons in his freshman season at Georgia Tech. One of the most important was champions don’t beat themselves.
In 2014, the Jackets won their ninth ACC Tournament as a nine seed, setting school records with a .974 fielding percentage while turning a nation-leading 77 double plays. Justus did his part, fielding .968 for the season, including a streak of 25 errorless games, .985 in 30 ACC games. He anchored the infield over the 50 games he played once taking over at short.
That lesson has carried over in 2015, as the team’s fielding is even better, Justus established at shortstop and, again, a key part of the equation.
Heading into this weekend’s top-25 showdown series against No. 18 North Carolina (12-8, 3-3), at Russ Chandler Stadium, No. 21 Georgia Tech (15-5, 4-2) is playing the best defense in the ACC, boasting a .977 fielding percentage, having committed only 17 errors through its first 20 games.
“Defense is always important. You’ve heard it many times, defense wins championships,” said Justus, who is pickin’ `em at a .966 clip, with three errors in 87 chances. “I think if we just play defense behind our pitchers our guys are going to give us a good shot to win. So as long as we keep doing that we have a good chance with anyone we play.”
Tech’s stingy defense has helped forge a 14-5 record in games decided by four-or-fewer runs and an 11-0 record when leading after six innings. It also has played a big part in the Jackets’ ability to stick around in games and come back to win them, as they have eight come-from-behind victories, three when trailing in the ninth.
Compare that to the Tar Heels, who are 13th in the 14-team ACC, fielding .957, with 31 errors (10th). UNC is 8-5 in games decided by four-or-fewer runs and, while like Tech, they are 11-0 when leading after six, they do not have a ninth-inning comeback — they’re 0-7 when trailing after six and 0-8 when trailing after seven and eight. The Tar Heels have lost five of seven overall, and three of their last four close games, including back-to-back one-run games, having made errors resulting in runs in each loss.
For the season, Tech has allowed only 13 unearned runs. North Carolina has allowed 26.
That could be a big difference, as the Jackets look to improve on their 4-2 ACC record, good for a three-way tie for first in the Coastal Division, with Miami and Virginia Tech. North Carolina is tied for fourth with Pittsburgh at 3-3, Duke and Virginia bring up the rear, but are well within range at 2-4.
“Every series is important. Whether you’re playing the lowest team or the highest team either way you look at it it’s important for where we want to end up at the end of the season,” said Justus. “Everything is important at this point of the season. It still being early, only two games behind us is the way we look at it. We just have to go and take care of business. That’s the way it is.”
Justus is much more accustomed to the way it is in his second season on the Flats and first full season at short. He credits what he learned last season under the tudoring of senior Mott Hyde, who had been the starter at short for the two previous seasons, but who moved to second mid-season.
“The growing process from last year to this year has been huge, plus having those guys above me, like Mott,” said Justus. “He was a great mentor for me last year. So just taking what he gave me and what I’ve learned, just growing and learning the position more and more, just staying consistent with that and staying confident in playing the position.”
Justus has found himself taking freshman second baseman Wade Bailey under his wing and has found himself offering a lot of the same advice that Hyde offered him last year.
“We talk a lot about just making the plays, making the routine plays and the spectacular plays will come,” he said. “If you make the ones you’re supposed to and let the rest take care of itself then it’s going to be a great year.”
The duo has been rock solid as Tech’s middle infield, committing only six errors — three each in 187 chances — and solidifying the Jackets up the middle, where Tech features catcher Arden Pabst and centerfielder Daniel Spingola.
Justus is pleased with the way he and Bailey have already bonded.
“It’s going great,” he said. “He’s awesome. He makes the plays that he needs to and he gets me the ball and lets me do what I need to. We’re working really well together. Hopefully we can keep carrying that over and just keep staying positive.”
Georgia Tech hopes to carry over its recent success against North Carolina, as Tech has won the last five series, going 11-4, and has won six of the last seven series at Russ Chandler Stadium, going 14-7. To continue that trend they need to continue to play the kind of ball that has helped them win their first two ACC series and was apparent in their midweek 7-6, 11-inning thriller at Kennesaw State. The opportunistic Jackets scored five unearned runs, including their two game-tying runs in the ninth and go-ahead and game-winning runs in the 11th.
“Consistency [is the key]. We have to play defense, we have to hit, we have to pitch. That’s the name of the game,” said Justus. “As long as we do those things consistently and we make the plays behind our pitchers and take confidence into the batter’s box I think we have a good shot.”
Playing at home, where Tech is 9-2 (2-1 in ACC play), also works in their favor.
“They’re a very good team so definitely having that home field advantage is awesome,” Justus said. “We’ve proven this year it’s tough to beat us at our place. Hopefully we can keep carrying that over and have a good series with them.”
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