#TGW: Glittering Prize

March 10, 2015

By Jon Cooper The Good Word

There may not be a game where participants are more prone to failure and where success is faster fleeting than baseball.

But there’s nothing like when things are going well, when a player rides a cresting wave of confidence in his ability, feeling he can do anything.

Sophomore Brandon Gold is riding that kind of wave be it at the plate, in the field — at two different positions — and on the mound.

Gold has been a big part of Georgia Tech’s 11-4 start (3-0 in the ACC), which includes a 7-4 win over Southern on Feb. 17, and has helped fuel the Jackets’ recent surge that has seen them win six out of seven heading into Tuesday’s midweek game against Georgia Southern (11-5, including a sweep of Georgia, 3-0 in the Sun Belt) at Russ Chandler Stadium (first pitch is at 6 p.m.).

The Alpharetta native and former Johns Creek High School star heads into the season finale with the Eagles batting .297 (sixth on the team), with a .486 slugging percentage (fourth), two doubles, a triple, a homer and seven RBI. The batting average is up 51 points from his freshman campaign, his slugging percentage is up 175 points, he’s almost halfway to his entire freshman year RBI total, and he’s already surpassed his triple and home run totals.

“I feel real comfortable right now. I’m seeing pitches really well,” he said. “When you step in the box and you just have that feeling that the pitcher can’t beat you with his best stuff it’s just a good feeling. I’ve been feeling that a lot lately.

“I think I’ve just learned to trust myself. Sometimes you just overthink it and try to overcompensate for mistakes when you’ve just got to trust it,” he added. “I think I’ve learned that about myself. I’ve learned that about my teammates, too. When you’re struggling you just have to trust everything, trust the process. Trust your batting practices, hitting off the tee, everything that you work for, it’s going to work out. I’m not in the position I am by accident.”

There are at least three positions where Gold can be found, deliberately — third base, his primary position last season, pitcher where he’s been superb since debuting two weeks ago and first, where he was superb in his debut two GAMES ago.

In a move made Saturday just prior to the start of the middle game of the Notre Dame series, head coach Danny Hall, looking to find the proper combination while giving nicked-up shortstop Connor Justus a day off, decided to move Gold, who had played third on Friday and was scheduled to pitch Sunday, across the diamond to first base. Gold’s versatility made the move possible and had Hall comfortable with it.

“I think [Gold’s versatility is] huge,” said Hall, following Saturday’s 11-7 series-evening victory. “That’s one of the things we envisioned him doing when we recruited him. Last year it was all third base but he’s given us a big boost.”

Prior to Saturday, Gold’s career experience at first consisted of two innings played over the summer, yet, on Saturday, he looked perfectly at home. He was flawless in the field, including making a spectacular diving stop on a ball ticketed for down the right field line, then a perfect flip to pitcher Cole Pitts to end the third inning.

“I think it was good scouting by the coaches, placing me on the line a little bit and the glove of Thomas Smith, that thing does wonders,” he said, with a laugh. “The players sometimes get the credit but I think it’s the glove. `Smitty’ makes it look easy over there.

“It’s a little more relaxing [than third] because you can bobble the ball and still get an out,” he added. “It’s just a different angle, different approach but not too hard to adjust.”

Gold trusted that he could make that adjustment when approached by Hall, who had senior A.J. Murray, an experienced first baseman, available.

“We have a lot of versatile guys on our team,” said Gold, who got a pregame refresher from assistant coach and former Jackets first-sacker Tony Plagman. “You’ve just got to help the team win. If Coach comes up to you, obviously, he knows what he’s talking about. It worked out. A.J. got, it seemed like six hits today, with 20 RBI (actually 2-for-5, with four RBI, on a two-run, first-inning homer and a two-run fifth-inning double). He’s just been hitting the ball well.”

Nobody is hitting the ball well off Gold, who has been just about untouchable in his two starts as the Sunday starter.

He’ll head into this weekend’s series at Duke with a 2-0 record and a 0.81 ERA in four appearances, having allowed three runs (two earned) and 13 hits in 22 ⅓ innings of work. As good as those numbers are, they actually are inflated due to his first two appearances, both in relief, when he allowed the two earned runs, in 7 ⅓ innings.

Since becoming a starter on March 1, Gold has not allowed a run in 15 innings. In whitewashing the state of Indiana — he threw seven scoreless innings at Indiana State and eight more the following weekend at Notre Dame), he’s surrendered only six hits, all singles, struck out 11 while walking one. He’s thrown 71 percent of his pitches for strikes (135 of 190 pitches).

“He’s a good competitor both at the plate and on the mound and that’s a lot of what we like about him,” said assistant coach Jason Howell. “We expect a lot of strikes. The good thing about Brandon is he’s going to make the other team beat him.”

Neither ISU nor ND came close.

The Sycamores didn’t get a runner on until the fifth inning, didn’t get a hit until two outs in the seventh and only got one runner into scoring position. The Fighting Irish did slightly better, managing five hits, twice getting a runner into scoring position and twice putting runners at first and second — the only two innings in which Gold has allowed multiple baserunners. But Gold bore down, as the Irish went 0-for-6 in RISP at-bats and didn’t do a thing over his final 4 ⅓ innings, as Gold retired the final 13 hitters he faced.

Howell sees signs of the talented right-hander living up to the potential they saw while recruiting him.

“In recruitment of him we knew he’d be a two-way guy,” he said. “Last year, kind of playing out of necessity, we had some more depth on the mound so we didn’t need him as much pitching. This year we need him a little bit more. We worked him and got his count up in the fall and in the spring for this to kind of happen. We’ve been preparing for it and it’s now happening.”

Staying rock steady mentally while also exuding confidence is exactly what Howell wants and expects to see from Gold.

“Even though he’s confident he’s not really over the line with it,” said Howell. “You just see a steady heart-rate monitor, which, from a coaching standpoint you love to see. So he’s a good competitor but it’s a lot of keep the emotion in and just do what you do.”

In his two starts, Gold has done what he does under some trying circumstances. He’s pitched while taking a perfect game into the fifth, a no-hitter into the seventh, has closed out a series sweep and pitched with a series on the line — the ACC home-opening series, no less. He hopes he won’t have to face trying to salvage the final game of a series, but isn’t afraid of that pressure when the time comes. Gold trusts that there is nothing that will shake him or force him to change his approach.

“Every single time, whether it’s sweep, get swept or win a series you still have to pitch your `A’ game,” he said. “You have to go out there with the same mindset, that the hitters are not going to beat you. I think that won’t change, whether it will be a series-clincher, getting swept or sweeping.”

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